Last Fall, sometime before Halloween, I saw this nearly-life-size, nearly-anatomically-correct skeleton for sale at Costco. I spent a good twenty minutes debating buying it–not for Halloween, but just because it seemed like something I should have. I ended up deciding I could live without it, but my sister–completely unprompted by me–also saw it at Costco and got me one for me for Christmas, because she’s awesome like that and knew I needed it. Since then it’s been hanging out in various places around the house, which it occurs to me I should have been posting pictures of for the past year to fill up some of the empty space here at Bill’s Head.
When Halloween rolled around this year it didn’t even occur to me that Bony (the skeleton–that’s what my niece named him) could be used as a Halloween decoration until E—— mentioned it. On Halloween day I got back from a bike ride with about two hours to spare before the trick-or-treaters were expected, and inspiration struck.
It’s a good thing he was wearing a helmet, as there was a bit of an accident at the end of the evening when he rode into the garage for the night.
Those of you who know anything about anatomy might notice that whoever designed this thing reversed the tibia and fibula. That’s probably why he has so much trouble walking.
I just spent two weeks listening to my life passing me by in 20-minute increments marked out by this sound:
That’s the sound of the shutter on the camera set up in the guest bathroom, where it sat for those two weeks with a timer running to take a picture every 20 minutes of the crocodile growing and then shrinking in the bathtub.
It all started a few weeks before that, when I wandered in to a dollar store in search of inspiration for birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, and blog posts. I found a rack of “grow animals”–little plastic animals that expand when you put them in water. I got something similar as a gift once; they were little things made out of sponge or something similar. But the ones I saw in the store were bigger and made of plastic, and what caught my eye was the claim on the package that they grow “up to 600%.” Some of them were fairly small, but one of them was a crocodile that was 11 inches long. The package says to “submerge your creature in a large container full of room temperature water. Make sure there is enough room for your creature to grow.” Six hundred percent of 11 inches is five and a half feet, and I was giggling in the store as I pictured the little animal growing to overflow a bathtub.
So I bought the crocodile and it sat around for a while until I finally had some time to devote to the project. Fortunately I also had a spare bathroom to devote to the project, because I couldn’t think of another container capable of containing my soon-to-be-66-inch-long beast. Since there’s no point in doing a thing unless I can write a blog post about the doing of the thing, I decided I should make a time-lapse movie to document the experiment. And that’s how I found myself, on a fine Sunday evening, rigging up a light stand and tripod in the bathroom.
I put the crocodile in the bathtub, added some water, set the camera to take a picture every 20 minutes, and tried to go about my business for the next seven days while the crocodile went about its.
Except that the camera shutter is pretty loud, and that bathroom sits right outside my home office and my bedroom. The sound even carries faintly to the lower floor of the house. I have a grandfather clock that chimes every 15 minutes. I’ve had it for 16 years now so I’m used to it and hardly notice it. But that camera. That camera–
It never faded into the background. Two weeks. Whatever I was doing, every 20 minutes there it was, reminding me that another 20 minutes of my life had passed me by. Wrestling with how to word an e-mail message to a customer? Click-click: you’ve just wasted 20 minutes on that. Think you’re making good progress on that knotty technical issue? Click-click. Click-click. Forty minutes and you’re still not finished, so not such great progress after all, is it? Can’t get to sleep tonight? Click-click. Just think of everything you could be doing if you weren’t lying here staring at the ceiling. Click-click. Still awake? Enjoying reading a good book? Click-click. Narrative spell is broken. Think of all the chores you should be doing.
I’ve done some thinking about why it affected me this way, but didn’t come up with anything other than perhaps I was in an existential angsty sort of mood for those two weeks. Maybe it didn’t help that my birthday was mixed in there.
Anyway, aside from taking a surprising toll on my mental state (quoth the camera: nevermore), here’s how it went:
Day 1: The crocodile grew noticeably but not dramatically, changed color, and started to curl backward on itself like you might expect a dead reptile to do.
Day 2: Most of the growth seemed to happen in the tail, which came out of the water and caused the crocodile to tip over from the weight of it. I added more water to the tub to try to keep everything submerged, and, after reviewing pictures from day 1, improved the lighting.
By now it was clear that there was no danger of the thing reaching 600% and bursting out of the bathtub. I never really expected it, but still I was a little disappointed. I also realized that maybe they meant 600% fatter, not 600% longer. I did a Web search to learn more about what I should expect and came upon the Web site of chemist David A. Katz, who explains “the chemistry behind toys, old and new, with hands-on activities,” including an experiment with grow creatures. From this I learned that
The original creature is composed of a plastic called a graft copolymer of hydrolyzed starch-polyacrylonitrile (polyacrylonitrile is commonly known as “Acrilan,” “Orlon,” or “Creslan”). Such materials are called superabsorbants or “super slurpers” and some are capable of absorbing up to 2000 times their weight in distilled water. By combining the starch-polyacrylonitrile with glycerin or ethylene glycol (the active ingredient in anti-freeze), a strong and resilient plastic gel is produced that can absorb up to 400 times its weight in distilled water.
So I should have filled the bathtub with distilled water for the best chance at full growth. Also, “Creslan” seems like a good name for my little super-slurping crocodile.
Day 3: Started to uncurl a bit and stretch out.
Day 4: A little bit of excitement overnight, apparently: I found a fly floating in the tub in the morning. I like to think the crocodile made an effort to catch it but then couldn’t be bothered to eat it. So much for super-slurping. I fished it out, but you can see it drifting around a bit in the video.
Day 5: The skin looks like it’s in danger of sloughing off, as if the crocodile is moulting. The tail has developed a crack that looks like what you get when you’re boiling an egg and the shell cracks and egg starts to leak out. Maybe the fly bit a chunk out of it? When I touch it it feels slimy.
Day 6: Continuing to straighten out. And the clicking. The endless, soul-crushing clicking.
Day 7: It doesn’t seem to be growing any more but it is wagging its tail in very, very slow motion, which is very strange and slightly creepy.
Day 8: Like day 7. Time to call this thing and drain the tub.
Here’s how it ended up: grown version on top, and the original inserted into the picture underneath for comparison.
I’ll spare you from squinting at the ruler and doing the math yourself: it went from about 11½ inches to a bit over 18, making it 163% of its original length. I suppose you could look at it with your eyes squinty and try to convince yourself it bulked up by a factor of six, but this is the 600% I wanted to see:
The instructions say it will shrink back to its original size to be used again and again, so I decided to torture myself with another week of click-click and let it go. By the eighth day it had shrunk down to 14½ inches long but not lost much of its girth. I stopped taking pictures at that point and took down the camera so I could go back to using that bathroom when I didn’t want to walk the 30 feet to the other one. Another two weeks or so have passed now, so it’s been out of the water about three weeks and is back close to its original size, so I went and took another picture. Now I’m a little disappointed I didn’t keep the camera going. When you touch the crocodile, crystals of something flake off all over the place.
Here’s a final comparison of all three stages:
To cap it all off I spent a few hours learning how to edit movies and made this for my entertainment and maybe yours:
An addendum for those of you now thinking about rushing out and buying some grow animals as Christmas presents for the kids in your lives: I think you can find better things to spend your $1 on. I don’t know your kid so I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine your kid patiently waiting around for a few days and then being excited by the modest growth. Or even remembering, by that point, how the animal looked to begin with. Watch this video for a demonstration of a parent trying very hard to get his kid excited about one of these animals. The kid is mostly excited that his hand is wet. If you want to make it into a science experiment or time-lapse photography project with your kid, that’s another thing entirely, and you should definitely go for it.
Recently I opened my morning newspaper and found this picture, which looked so familiar I had to get up immediately from breakfast to go find Bill’s Head’s jar (which currently houses the remains of a terrarium; sorry if you’re disappointed to learn that it does not actually contain my floating head) and see if it’s the same one. Not quite, but close enough to give me a little tingle.
The picture is from the forthcoming book Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, by photographer Adam Voorhes and journalist Alex Hannaford. The book documents some of the “extremely rare, malformed, or damaged human brains”* that Voorhes discovered packed away in hundreds of jars in a storage closet at the University of Texas State Mental Hospital, including the stories of their former owners and the collection itself.
If you’re looking for something to get me for my birthday or for Secular Winter Gift-Giving Holiday and Bad Music Extravaganza, the book will be published on December 2.
While reading the newspaper at breakfast yesterday I saw this Air France ad, featuring a woman in a frog costume hopping in the air, with a tagline reading “HAPPY LEGS!”
I thought the ad was cute and catchy in its retro simplicity, but mostly I loved that they seem to be playing on frog as a derogatory term for a French person and/or the stereotype that the French eat frog legs all day.*
At lunch I opened The Economist and found another Air France ad:
This one shows a woman in a princess gown sprawled out in a reclining airline seat fitted with carrying poles like a sedan chair, plopped down on a gravel path at a palace garden. The visuals evoke the opulence and elegance of Marie Antoinette, but the tagline is “REVOLUTIONARY COMFORT.”
Talk about a mixed metaphor! If I remember my French history correctly the revolution wasn’t very comfortable and didn’t end well for the people riding around in sedan chairs and wearing fancy gowns. I immediately imagined a guillotine waiting to receive the princess. Something like this, in fact:
The ads are from Air France’s new “France is in the Air” campaign (read and see more here, if you’re curious and don’t have Google). Thank god they’re no longer using their “Gross Giant Toes are in the Air” ad from 2000:
France may be in the air, but (speaking of national stereotypes) Air France isn’t right now: the pilots are on strike, staging their own little revolution.
I saw a man today wearing a t-shirt printed on the back with:
Don’t wait until midnight
Just as I was starting to make guesses about what was going to happen at midnight, he turned around and I saw the front:
No man knows the date or the hour
I know enough Bible to get that this is a reference to The Rapture:* Don’t think you can wait until the last minute to get yourself sorted out with God, because no one knows when he might show up and slaughter all the unrepentant masses.
But my first thought was that this is good advice for life generally: no one knows what you mean when you say midnight. If God announced that everyone should be packed and ready to go at midnight on April 18, at least half of his followers would miss the Rapture Train because they showed up at the end of April 18 instead of the beginning. That’s why lawyers don’t use midnight in contracts: they use 11:59pm or 12:01am (and if you’re listening, God, be sure to specify which time zone you’re referring to, too).
The Bible doesn’t actually cite midnight as the cause of the confusion, but we can interpret it that way:
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
Clearly, one of those men and one of those women were confused about what midnight refers to. I don’t know what this house is all of a sudden, or why God’s return is being likened to a thief breaking into a house (isn’t his return supposed to be a good thing?), or why the Bible is telling us to keep watch when it is also telling us that there is no point in keeping watch because we cannot know when to keep watch, but “keep watch” obviously means “make sure your am/pm is set right on your watch and understand when midnight is.”
The advice from the United States Institute of Standards and Technology is slightly more straightforward :
Are noon and midnight referred to as 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.?
This is a tricky question because 12 a.m. and 12 p.m. are ambiguous and should not be used.
To illustrate this, consider that “a.m.” and “p.m.” are abbreviations for “ante meridiem” and “post meridiem,” which mean “before noon” and “after noon,” respectively. Since noon is neither before noon nor after noon, a designation of either a.m. or p.m. is incorrect. Also, midnight is both twelve hours before noon and twelve hours after noon.
It is fair to say, however, that the shortest measurable duration after noon should be designated as p.m. For example, it would be applicable for a digital clock changing from 11:59:59 a.m. to 12:00:00 to indicate p.m. as soon as it the 12:00 appears, and not delay the display of the p.m. by a minute, or even a second. The same is true for midnight, but there is an added issue of which day midnight refers to (see below).
Hours of operation for a business or other references to a block of time should also follow this designation rule.
For example, a business might be open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon or weekends from 3:30 p.m. until midnight.
Is midnight the end of a day or the beginning of a day?
When someone refers to “midnight tonight” or “midnight last night” the reference of time is obvious. However, if a date/time is referred to as “at midnight on Friday, October 20th” the intention could be either midnight the beginning of the day or midnight at the end of the day.
To avoid ambiguity, specification of an event as occurring on a particular day at 11:59 p.m. or 12:01 a.m. is a good idea, especially legal documents such as contracts and insurance policies. Another option would be to use 24-hour clock, using the designation of 0000 to refer to midnight at the beginning of a given day (or date) and 2400 to designate the end of a given day (or date).
Happy New Year, Faithful Reader!
I see that I managed two posts in all of 2013, and made the usual promises about doing more. What will 2014 bring? Perhaps Warren Buffett could sponsor a $1 billion prize for the person who correctly guesses the full Bill’s Head posting bracket for this year. (We did accomplish a Very Significant Goal over at Bill’s Day Job World Headquarters late last year, so this year the work pace will perhaps be less frantic, leaving me more time and energy to waste here at Bill’s Head World Headquarters. As always, prepare to have your hopes dashed.)
Now that we’re 28 days into the year, are you still casting about for a New Year’s resolution that will improve your life in a massive, revolutionary way, but also will be really easy to keep so that you won’t find yourself, come December 31, despondent that you didn’t accomplish a single one of your self-improvement goals for the year? What if I told you it could also reduce by ⅔ the amount of time you spend performing a common chore? Look no further, dear friend. Simply amend your resolution list as follows:
That’s right: “Learn to tie shoes properly” should be number 1 on your list of things to do this year.
“But wait!” you say. “I am a grownup and I already know how to tie my shoes.” Let me tell you a story.
Late last year, E——, who had been complaining about her shoes not staying tied, applied her sailor’s knowledge of knots to an analysis of how she was tying her shoes. “Oh my god!” she told me. “I’m tying my shoes wrong. That’s why they don’t stay tied.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “There’s only one way to tie shoes. You can’t be doing it wrong.” So she demonstrated. And then I looked at how I tied my shoes.
“Oh my god!” I said. “I’ve been tying my shoes wrong all my life!” Why? I was doing both phases of my knot “left over right,” which results in a Granny Knot. When you do it properly, the two phases of the knot go in opposite directions (“left over right” and then “right over left”) producing a proper Bowknot.
After I got over my initial shock that I’ve been doing something so basic incorrectly for nearly 40 years, my first impulse was, of course, to go do a Web search to find out if anyone else had had the same revelation. It turns out that there are a lot of people doing it wrong, judging by the number of articles on Internet demonstrating the correct and incorrect technique.
Based on my highly scientific survey of people I know, there’s a pretty good chance you’re doing it wrong, too. How can you tell? Do your shoes come untied a lot? You’re probably doing it wrong. Do the bows on your knot end up pointing toward your heels and toes (below right) instead of draping nicely across your shoes (below left)? You’re probably doing it wrong.
It didn’t take me long to come across Ian’s Shoelace Site, because of course there has to be one of those. Here you can learn everything you never wanted to know about shoe laces and how to tie them, including the revolutionary Ian Knot, which, according to Ian, allows him to tie his shoes in ⅓ the time as compared to a standard knot.
I have adopted the Ian Knot myself (along with Ian’s Secure Knot for more demanding situations). Have I achieved that sort of performance improvement? You may be surprised to hear that I have not gone so far as to time myself. But I will say that learning and converting to the Ian Knot was easier than overcoming all the years of bad technique and getting myself to tie a proper Bowknot.
Still skeptical? When I saw my family at Christmas I told them all about my recent shoe-tying revelation, and of course they all laughed at me for not knowing how to tie my shoes. Until I made them all show me how they do it: every one of them was doing it wrong, except for my 5-year-old niece, who clearly was taught to tie her shoes by someone other than her parents. They were all still skeptical that it mattered, but I have subsequently heard independently from both of my parents—who have had to overcome a lot more years of bad habit than I—who have changed their technique and find their lives better for it. Lest you think I am making this up, here is the actual testimonial from my father:
I should also tell you that I have taken to tying my shoes your “new way.” I will readily admit, it is vastly superior to the way I did it for the first [middling-large number] years of my life. Amazing what tricks we old dogs can learn from our children.
Some years ago I read Charles Palliser’s novel The Quincunx. Though I don’t remember much about the book at this point, it stands out in my mind as one of my favorites. Perhaps one day I will reread it and see if it holds up.
One thing I do remember from the book is that it introduced me to toshers (I have mentioned them before)–the people who made their living scrounging through the sewers of 19th-century London looking for items of value. I was therefore quite excited when I came across Mike Dash’s post about toshers in Smithsonian magazine’s Past Imperfect blog. Dash describes
the men who made their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
The work was dirty and dangerous (“what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats”) but apparently surprisingly lucrative, earning toshers enough “to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class.”
After you’ve read up on toshers, learn more about what was going on beneath London in the 19th century in Dash’s post about the first attempt to build a tunnel under the Thames.
You could also read The Quincunx and let me know what you think.
When I go out for a bike ride on the weekend, I often go with a group. It’s nice to have people to talk to and to know someone’s there to help out if I get into trouble. But on the other hand, I have to get out of bed and show up on time to start the ride, and at the end of it all I sometimes feel like I’ve just passed a lot of beautiful scenery that I forgot to look at because I was too busy looking at the back of the person in front of me and worrying about maintaining the pace. Partly this is due to the nature and riding style of this group, and partly it’s my own fault.
When I go out for a long ride on my own, I sometimes end up feeling like I’ve had an adventure. This is especially true when I ride in an area I’m not familiar with, or improvise a route. I slow down to look at the scenery. Sometimes I stop to take pictures. If the ride ends up taking far longer than I expected, that makes it feel even more like it was an adventure. It’s a nice feeling even though the “adventure” quotient is actually fairly low. Even if I’m on a new route, I’m generally in an area I’m roughly familiar with, and if something catastrophic were to happen I could always call a friend or family member to come rescue me.
On Sunday I was out on my own for a moderately-difficult 60-mile ride. I hadn’t set out to do anything too ambitious because I wanted to get home with time and energy to deal with some chores. By the time I came into Front Royal after 25 miles, though, I was enjoying the ride and the slightly-nicer-than-it-has-been-lately weather. I had already made one brief detour in search of the “Octopus Slide” (which I never did find, so clearly their idea of “all day!” did not include the middle part of the day). So in search of further adventure I decided I’d extend my ride by getting on Skyline Drive, riding uphill five miles or so to the end of the first big climb, then coming back to continue on my way.
Five miles along Skyline Drive I stopped at the Dickey Ridge visitor center for a food break (and a crappy cellphone picture that I won’t bother posting but I will bother mentioning). While I was there I saw a guy with a loaded-up touring bike (my favorite part: the solar panel strapped across the rear panniers for charging his phone and computer). I asked him how far he was headed, expecting to hear that he was riding the length of Skyline Drive, or maybe Skyline Drive plus the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead he said (with a distinct Scottish accent) that he was riding to Austin. As in: Texas. This was day three of his 10-week, 2500-mile ride.
I learned that he lives in Brighton (England) and is a fan of American music–country, blues, folk, etc. He’s also a fan of bicycling and felt like he needed an adventure, so he decided to combine the two interests and come tour the parts of the country where the music was born. There isn’t a well-documented and -traveled bike route for this tour (by comparison, there are lots of resources to help you plan a coast-to-coast ride), so he pieced a route together as best he could using Google Maps. He couldn’t tell on Google Maps which roads are paved and which aren’t, so he’ll have to take his chances. He doesn’t seem to know many people in this country, so he doesn’t have much of a support network to draw on if something goes wrong.
After we talked for a bit my own ride for the day was seeming decidedly less adventurous. Rather than turning back as I had planned, I rode a few more miles along Skyline Drive first to make sure I was getting as much as possible out of my day. It even occurred to me to just keep riding until I couldn’t go any further and then figure out what to do next, but that seemed more stupid than adventurous, so I headed back to Front Royal and resumed my original ride, turning in a respectable 75 miles for the day.
As I rode on I realized I hadn’t even gotten the guy’s name, much less asked him if he had a blog where I could follow his progress (everyone has a blog for everything, right?) Fortunately there aren’t a lot of people cycling from Washington to Austin this summer, so 45 seconds with Google was all it took for me to learn that his name is Iain and his blog for the trip is here. Go follow along while you’re waiting for me to do something interesting with my life and write about it.
Oh, there was one bit of extra adventure for me on my ride: toward the end I was shot at by some jackass kid with an air rifle or paintball gun or something like that. No doubt he’ll grow up to be one of those people who thinks it’s funny to throw beer bottles at cyclists or try to run them off the road. Here’s hoping Iain is spared this little part of the American experience.
The National Gallery of Art currently has a large exhibition of works by Joan Miró. It’s a well-organized show that does a great job of providing background and context for his work. As for the art itself, I like his earlier paintings, but the later, more abstract work mostly does not resonate with me.
One of the best-known early-period paintings is “The Farm,” which Miró painted in 1921–22 and which was once owned by Ernest Hemingway.
There’s a lot going on in there, but take a look toward the bottom right corner. What’s that rooster sitting on?
I spent a long time staring at this up close at the museum, and I’m pretty sure it’s a laptop computer with a pie chart on the screen. Maybe that rabbit was working on a spreadsheet?