A belated Happy Halloween

I made a Halloween display
Nov 132015
 

Photo of skeleton riding bicycleLast 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.

Photo of skeleton riding bicycleWhen 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.

Photo of skeleton riding bicycle

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.

Photo of skeleton on bicycle crashed to floor

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.

The crocodile in my bathtub

In which Bill grows a crocodile in his bathtub and contemplates his own mortality
Dec 172014
 

I just spent two weeks listening to my life passing me by in 20-minute increments marked out by this sound:



Camera in the bathroom pointed into the bathtub 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.

Front and back of grow crocodile packagingIt 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.

Photo showing original and grown size of crocodile

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:

What the crocodile would look like if it grew to 600%
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:

comparison of original, grown, and shrunk versions of crocodile

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.

 

Inscriptions from a yearbook

In which Bill reveals what people said about him in high school
Dec 022014
 
Bill's high school yearbook photo
Bill’s 17-year-old Head*

Shortly after writing a recent, wildly-popular post wherein I briefly discussed yearbooks, I came upon my yearbook from my senior year in high school whilst cleaning out a bookcase.

Reading through the messages written by long-ago friends and acquaintances I was struck first of all by some very sincere and touching inscriptions by people I have absolutely no recollection of. For example, this one from someone whose name might be Sean (I can’t decipher the signature) and whom I don’t remember but apparently had a positive influence on:

Thanx a lot for a helluva lot of inspiration.

This one, from someone possibly named Jimmy or Jerry, is baffling and a little alarming:

Thanks for teaching me to be a “real man.” And for the book on how to eat like a child.

What the hell is that about? Not what it sounds like, I assure you, because I would remember that.

While doing some research for this post (they’re all backed by research, you know!), I found an article titled “How to sign yearbooks with style” from Girls’ Life magazine. It has this tip:

Show off your super thoughtful self with a message that’s short, sure, but totally calls attention to your friendship. Even a quick “Couldn’t have it [sic] made it through U.S. history without ya!” will make your bud smile, and will help ya recall the school year decades from now.

That’s probably what my buds Sean and Jimmy or Jerry thought they were doing, sure, but it totally didn’t work. I would add these tips: write legibly and include your last name so that decades from now the recipient can find you in the index and figure out who you were.

My French teacher wrote something that is both in hard-to-read cursive handwriting and in French, so I have no idea what she said, which is a shame because I liked her. I can make out fromage, anyway, and plaisir, so that sounds positive.

Speaking of “what the hell is that about,” I have no idea who these “little people” are, but if I’m honest it sounds plausible:

A long-forgotten yearbook inscription

You’re so scary! But I love ya’ anyway! You’ve definitely made an impression on my [high school] life & I’m not really sure if that’s good or bad! I’ve never been the same since those little people living in your locker in the 7th grade! You are a great guy though! You’re super talented & I know you’ll go far! Set your goals high & you’ll reach ’em! Good luck & keep up the sense of humor!

You know what’s scary? All those exclamation points! Would you believe she was a cheerleader?! But a really nice one! Of course we know now that you’re much more likely to reach your goals if you set ’em low.

Here’s a sweet one from someone I don’t think I ever heard from again (though I have thought of her from time to time):

[Redacted: Short message that totally calls attention to our friendship, and also includes an inside joke.] Plus I will call you, & you better keep in touch! I am SO glad we are friends, let’s stay that way!

This one (from someone I can almost call to mind) is a little sad, and also makes me wonder if I missed out on an opportunity:

HEY LIFES Been great huh! Im glad I got the chance to know you. Im not going to college so if you come home give me a call. I’ll be lonely! [phone number]§

I could spend some time philosophizing about all this, but mostly it just makes me wonder: why isn’t there a Web site devoted to collecting this stuff? Someone gave it a try at Awkward Yearbook Signatures, but didn’t get very far. There should be a yearbookinscriptions.com, so maybe I’ll start that.

Notes

*
When I called my mom to ask if my senior pictures were still in the drawer at my parents’ house where I thought I remembered seeing them, she said, “Why? Do you need to prove to someone that you once had hair?” Thanks, mom. And remember that I have access to lots of embarrassing photos of you, plus the means to publish them to the world.
Bonus surprise: the use of thanx way back in 1989, long before txtspeak, with which I associate that sort of thing. The OED’s first reference is in 1936, though, fom H. L. Mencken, no less.
I think maybe I was inspired by the book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche at the time.
§
Don’t worry! She doesn’t need your retrospective pity! Based on what I think her last name was I asked Internet and she seems to have turned out great.

Earth Day 2010

Remember Earth Day 2010? Neither did I until a strange voice appeared on my audio recorder
Nov 232014
 

Today I got out my audio recorder to use for a project involving a crocodile in my bathtub (more on that in a week or two). There were already some tracks on the memory card that I had never taken off, so when I went to play back today’s audio I was suddenly listening to the sound of my cat (who died in 2011) purring. Followed, bizarrely, by my sister talking to my niece about taking Woof Woof (stuffed dog?) with her (niece, not sister) to go pee-pee. Followed, even more bizarrely, by a man on a loudspeaker (with folk guitar in the background), laughing maniacally and saying, “We control your horizontal. We control your vertical. We give you that which is, was, will be.”*

I couldn’t figure out what I was listening to, or how it got on my recorder, and it was a little bit creepy. After a few moments I realized I must have recorded him when I was out photographing an event during one of my periods of playing at photojournalism (which for a while also involved some attempts at getting audio to go with the pictures). The timestamp on the audio file was April 25, 2010, which meant nothing to me, but I checked my photo catalog for that date and found my pictures from the Climate Rally held on the National Mall on Earth Day.

Man holding loudspeaker with Washington Monument in backgroundWhen I looked at the pictures it started to come back to me. I had arrived around 9:15 that morning, when things had barely gotten going and there were a few dozen people milling around. Off to the side was a man in his 20s or 30s wearing dress pants and shoes, clean white button-down shirt, tie, and dark sunglasses, with an American flag stuck in his hair and a battery-powered loudspeaker in his hand, talking about Jesus. The speaker was more interesting than your average person haranguing strangers about Jesus: he had a bit of an improvised poetic style, and was also listening to what was happening on stage and referencing it in his patter.

I recorded audio and took pictures of him at a few different times while I was there. By 12:15 I was done with the event; I can’t remember if I had somewhere else to be or was just bored with it. There were still fewer than 200 people there at that point, and the headline acts hadn’t come out yet. Apparently I really missed out, because eventually the sun came out and the rally got interesting, and, according to some reports, “tens of thousands” of people were there.

My pictures from the three hours I was there are uninteresting–so uninteresting that they’ve been languishing in my “to be reviewed” backlog ever since, totally forgotten. As I flipped through them today I had the audio playing in the background, and I found it a little haunting and strangely compelling–the speaker’s monologue interwoven with the music from the stage and contrasted against the rest of what was going on. So I’m posting it here as an audio slideshow for your consideration. It’s maybe a little long at just over seven minutes, and each picture is in front of you for too long because I didn’t have enough to select from, but still you might find it interesting if you put yourself in the right frame of mind and listen.

Plus there’s a guy with a cat on a leash.

I should just mention that I’m not trying to make any sort of statement about the Climate Rally itself here–it’s just that that’s what was going on while the guy was speaking, so I put the pictures in for context and to give you something to look at while you’re listening. I don’t know whether he was trying to make some larger point; whether he came out that day specifically for the rally or just decided to go preach on the Mall and the rally happened to be there. I don’t know this or anything else about him because I never talked to him to get his story, and for that reason I haven’t included any pictures of him other than the one above. Including more (identifiable) pictures of him felt like an invasion of his privacy (even though he was speaking in a public place), or maybe like co-opting him into my little art project. If I were actually a photojournalist I could have made a story about him, but instead this is a story about me listening to him, four and a half years after the fact.

Earth model in front of Capitol.
Play Slideshow

* * *

Oh, and because it seems wrong to let a post go by without making fun of someone or something, here’s the official Earth Day Menu of the food being offered by Guest Services (authorized concessioner for the rally):

Concession menu for Earth Day rally

I know there are limits to what you can efficiently and cost-effectively serve to large crowds, but didn’t someone think that this sort of rally might attract a lot of people who are vegetarian, or at least interested in healthy eating? Apparently not, because there are three choices on the menu: hot dogs, chicken tenders, and pulled pork barbecue. Also, just to nit-pick, I like that they included the accent in “à la carte” but missed the apostrophe in “Nations [sic] Capital.”

Notes

*
Google tells me that first bit is a misquotation from the opening sequence of The Outer Limits (video here).
I just today taught myself how to edit audio, so cut me some slack.
If you’re the person who wrote this sign, please refer to the Turnabout is Fair Play policy if you’d like to get your revenge upon me.

Scenes from an election

In which Bill helps make Democracy work and explores middle school
Nov 192014
 
Bill's head in a jar with an election officer name badge

Aside from donating blood (which I haven’t done in awhile because last time they botched the procedure–not in any dramatic way that was a threat to my health or had blood spraying across the room, but they had to throw away my blood, which left me faintly annoyed) my chief contribution to my community is working as an Election Officer–“Election Officer” being the formal title for “those old people who volunteer at the polls on election day,” except that I’ve found there are far fewer old people doing it than I’d always thought, probably because you work at least a 15-hour day and have to use technology like computers and touch screens and ballot scanners.

Usually I get assigned to my own precinct, so I get the fun of seeing my neighbors come in to vote, and of secretly judging the ones who don’t, or who vote the wrong way. Not that I actually know how anyone votes, mind you, but you can generally guess based on which party’s sample ballot they’re clutching when they come in. I wonder sometimes if, really, you should be voting if you’ve done so little research that you don’t even know the name of the person you’re supposed to vote for when you cast your party-line vote.* I have noticed–anecdotally and definitely subject to my own confirmation bias–that I see more people holding Republican sample ballots than Democratic, which could mean that Republicans are more likely to need to be told whom to vote for, or maybe just that the Republican operatives outside the polling place are more effective at getting people to take their handouts (which is strange because usually Republicans are against handouts).

Still it’s nice to see your neighbors and people you recognize from the grocery store and whatever, and–if I may be serious for just a moment–I think it probably helps instill some confidence in the process, if you’re there to vote and see that it’s people you know who are running things. Even if you don’t like them, or you don’t like their politics, at least you recognize them and know they’re not evil strangers scheming to steal the election from Good Americans like you. Well, not strangers, anyway.

This year not enough citizens from the S—— North and S—— South precincts were willing to work the polls, so most of us poll workers came from elsewhere. I like to imagine I was asked to go there because I’m on a list of super-awesome Election Rapid Response Officers, but probably it’s just because when I filled out the form I checked the box that said I was willing to leave my neighborhood. The big problem with being assigned to this location–aside from not being able to check up on my neighbors (though I did see the FedEx driver who’s been delivering to my house for at least 10 years, whom I’ve had more interactions with than I have with most of my neighbors)–was that it’s a good 12-minute drive from my house, which doesn’t seem like a lot except that I had to be there by 5am, and minutes count at that absurd hour.

The S—— North and S—— South precincts were operating from the cafeteria and gym of the same school, which adds some confusion to the day, as voters tend to know that they vote at the school but nothing beyond that. I wish I had a little video montage to show you, of a day’s worth of momentarily-flummoxed voters standing in the hallway, digging through their wallets and purses for their voter registration cards, or trying to find their house on the precinct maps that, oddly, omit the names of many of the key streets, making it quite difficult to orient yourself. The best moment came about two minutes before we were going to shut the doors and close the polls at the end of the day. I walked out into the hallway and there was a poll worker practically yelling at a guy who had just rushed through the outside door and didn’t know which precinct he belonged in.

“You have to be in the check-in line by 7 o’clock! Try to remember! Were you North or South last year?”

“I can’t remember.”

“Do you think you went to the cafeteria or the gym?”

“I DON’T KNOW!”

“Quick! There’s no time to look at the confusing map! Just pick a door!”

It worked out fine for him, though, and also for the couple with two crying infants who came in right after him, even though the woman seemed like she was about to pass out and couldn’t recite her home address without a lot of help from her husband. At first I thought this might be my first case of voter fraud of the sort the Republicans are all lathered up about, but it turns out they had moved recently and she was hopped up on cold medicine. I doused myself with hand sanitizer as soon as she moved away from me, just in case she had Ebola.

Speaking of Republican vote suppression efforts bogeymen, here in Virginia we had a new voter ID law to eliminate the non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud. We had to demand from each voter a “valid” photo ID, though the definition of “valid” was a bit arbitrary and impractical to adjudicate on the spot. For example, an out-of-state driver’s license is not acceptable, but an employer-issued ID badge (from any employer in any state) is. As if election officers can tell the difference between a real employee badge from Acme Corp. and one you just printed up yourself that morning for purposes of voting twice and stealing the election by casting the one vote that swings it. I can’t even name the 11 Native American tribes recognized by the state of Virginia, much less guess what a valid tribal enrollment card from one of them might look like.

The ID requirement did not supersede the requirement to have voters state out loud their full legal name and residence address, which led one impatient citizen to complain that it was stupid for us to be asking for information that we could read from his driver’s license. I think so, too, but I’m not allowed to express an opinion on election day, so I tried to explain that we are only volunteers and don’t make the rules, and anyway the photo ID is only to verify your identity, while stating your address is used to verify your address and to make it easier for the partisan poll watchers (absent that day) to challenge your right to be there if they think you look suspicious or non-white, but that didn’t appease him. You know the type–a lot like me, probably. He said, “It’s not even a very interesting question to ask.”

I couldn’t tell if he was just was annoyed that we were wasting an extra 15 seconds of his time, or was trying to make a point about the stupidity of the ID requirement, or what, but I lost control for a moment and said, “Sir, what color is your underwear?”

Well, that got him sputtering. “What do you mean? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Nothing,” I said, “but you wanted a more interesting question and that was the first thing that came to mind.”

He didn’t answer on the grounds that it had no relevance to voting. Or maybe he was voting commando. I hope he didn’t report me to The Authorities and get me fired from my thankless volunteer job for insubordination or lack of seriousness. Actually the county pays me for my volunteer service, and this year the pay is up to $175, which, even for a 15-hour day plus a few hours of training, is more than a lot of people make for a much harder day’s work. And it’s not thankless: a fair number of people make a point of thanking us for being there and making the whole thing work–which, by the way, it’s sort of amazing that it does.

I’m always thrown off by the people who read my name off my name badge and thank me by name. “Thanks for volunteering today, Bill.”

“Thanks for voting, and how the hell do you know my name?”

It just would never occur to me to address a stranger by name like that. Though once the idea was planted in my head, I was tempted to start reading people’s names from the work ID badges that a lot of them wore to the polls, and addressing them by name so they could experience that moment of doubt and confusion, too.

I know this all makes it sound like an exciting day of making Democracy, but mostly it was just a long, boring day of telling people to “slide it right in” the ballot scanner, which for some reason a lot of people have trouble figuring out how to do. You’ve got a ballot. There’s a slot. Not so complicated. This is another place where I need a video montage; it would be even funnier than the the first one.

* * *

On my breaks I spent some time wandering the halls of S—— Middle School, which had more rules, yearbook ads, and fonts than I remember from my time in school.

Sign telling kids not to use their electronic devices Sign reading "Live by the 3 R's in the hallway" with a lot of damn rules for walking in the hallway Sign reading "Yearbook. The original Facebook." Sign reading "Band Participation respect, honesty, teamwork, growth, creativity, and commitment excellence..." in a lot of different fonts Sign reading "A picture is worth 1000 tweets" with two absurd girls looking shocked and/or excited

An entire list of rules for how to walk in the hallway? Hallway passport? Follow the most direct route?

Sign reading "A picture is worth 1000 tweets" with two absurd girls looking shocked and/or excited. Plus Bill

The yearbook ones are a little clever, with the tagline “Social media captures the now, your yearbook preserves the now forever. Like yearbook!” I don’t know about the “forever” part–I think I’ve thrown away most of mine, unless they’re still boxed up in my parents’ attic. But at that age you can be persuaded that they’re important memories.§

When I saw the last poster I couldn’t resist getting in on the fun. I’d love to know what they’re looking at on that phone, though. The girl in green looks horrified, while the girl in white is all, like, “oh, yeah!” which makes me think maybe it’s a picture of White Girl making out with Green Girl’s boyfriend. Or worse: maybe some of that sexting stuff the kids are into.

Sign giving hashtag for submitting photos to yearbook

A little later I saw this sign, encouraging people to tag their photos on Instagram for possible inclusion in the yearbook. I thought long and hard before deciding not to tag a bunch of pictures of me posing around the school. While it would have been funny to you and me, I suspect the kids on the yearbook staff wouldn’t have been amused. Though their adviser might have been, if she or he had a sense of humor at all and didn’t report me to the police. Also it’s not clear where you tag your selfies if not on Instagram, so that “or” maybe isn’t appropriate, and I don’t know how to use Instagram.

There were also these banners, painted by student artists and depicting the school’s panther mascot.

Creepy paintings showing lurking, smarmy, possibly psychopathic, panther dressed in human clothes pretending to be a student

I thought they were a little creepy when I saw them, and I still think that, looking at them now. I’m pretty sure the one on the right is about to kill those two kids and is carrying the remains of some other kids on his lunch tray.

Go Panthers!

* * *

I have some serious thoughts on all this (the election part, not the wandering the halls of a middle school part) and even some pride at being part of the process, but I’ve run out of space and this is no place for that sort of earnestness, so maybe I’ll follow up after the next election when it’s all fresh again.

Notes

*
In 2012, when turnout was high (in U.S. terms, anyway) and lines were long I had to help a husband-and-wife pair who rushed in toward closing time, a bit frazzled because they hadn’t looked at the new voter registration cards they’d been mailed and therefore didn’t realize they’d been moved to a new precinct, so they’d already been to their old polling place and stood in line for awhile, to find out they were in the wrong place, then driven to the new polling place, where they got to stand in line all over again to check in, and then stand in line a bit more to wait for a spot at the ballot-filling-out table, where they were confused because their sample ballots–which they brought from the first stop–were telling them to vote for candidates who weren’t on the ballot. After I explained that they were now in a different Congressional district than their old precinct, they asked me to give them a sample ballot, which as a conscientious and strictly neutral Election Officer I am not allowed to do, so they asked me if I could tell them which ones were the candidates from their preferred party, at which point I gently pointed out that there were “(D)” and “(R)” indicia next to the relevant names on the ballot.
That’s all I knew about my assignment, too, and I only realized I had reported to the wrong room that morning because the Chief Election Officer introduced himself, and I couldn’t remember the name of my Chief but did know she was supposed to be a woman.
I finally had to ask someone what middle school is. I thought it was something like 5th and 6th grade, but in this school system it’s 7th and 8th grade, which were called “junior high” when I did them.
§
I found the designer who created the posters, who says that the purpose of the campaign was “to express how yearbook is just as if not more important than social media,” which is a comforting thing to believe if you work for a yearbook company. Also I learned the word yerd, which is a yearbook nerd but also means “to beat with a stick,” so watch the context.

Heads in jars in the news

A new book tells the stories behind a closet full of brains in jars
Nov 142014
 
Brains in a jar
Photo by Adam Voorhes via Amazon

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.

Notes

*
So says the book’s blurb on Amazon. You can also read more at the Washington Post.

How I didn’t run a half marathon, and introducing Bill’s Head’s Store

Running 13.1 miles is hard. Making fun of people who brag about running 13.1 miles is easy. Also: Bill's Head now has an online store.
Sep 272014
 
I should have told this story back when it happened but never got around to it. Now I’ve dusted it off in service of crass commercialism.

A few years ago I started seeing more of those oval “13.1” half marathon stickers. Or maybe it was just that the guy in the house on the corner in my neighborhood got one, so I was seeing it every time I went past. Every time I saw one it made me laugh a little, because in my head a half marathon sticker is bragging about doing half of something.

One evening I passed by the neighbor’s car on my way back from a run-of-the-mill 40-mile bicycle ride and as usual smiled to myself when I saw the sticker. A few minutes later I was sitting on my front porch, under the influence of endorphins and a gin and tonic, and I started thinking about it: “I just rode 40 miles, and that’s not a big deal. If you’re a runner, you run. Thirteen miles shouldn’t even be that hard. I bet I could go out and run a half marathon without even training.”

Now, the last time I tried to be “a runner” was almost 20 years before this, and I think I had worked myself up to maybe one mile before I gave up on running because I had problems with shin splints or something like that. I went and bought a bike–reluctantly, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do to get some much-needed exercise–and eventually turned into “a cyclist.” Now I’m in great shape for cycling, and often have to re-learn the lesson that fitness for one activity doesn’t automatically make you awesome at other activities, even if they use roughly the same body parts.

I immediately–sitting right there on the porch–contacted several friends who are runners to ask them if they thought I could do it. One said, “sure, probably. I guess,” but most said “no” or “no and you’d probably do yourself some permanent damage.” I mostly gave up on the idea, but it was still there in the back of my mind and I kept laughing at 13.1 stickers.

Later in the Fall, mostly for reasons not related to thinking I could run a half marathon, I found myself one day at a running store, buying myself a shiny new pair of running shoes. I had to buy some running socks. And I think maybe I bought some running shorts. And a day or two later I went for a run. It was maybe a mile and a half, which was already probably the furthest I had ever run. Not bad for my first time out, but I definitely didn’t come home thinking, “oh, yeah, I could have run another 11.6 miles today if I wanted to.”

Over the next couple of weeks I ran several more times. It was nice, on a cold day, being able to just go out and do it, and not worry about so many layers and equipment as is required for a bike ride, and getting a decent workout in 30 minutes instead of devoting two hours to a ride.

I think I got up to about three miles before my knees and back started hurting. Maybe I needed to work on my technique or get different shoes or get my muscles developed or just tough it out, but by then the novelty of it had worn off and I had no trouble retiring from my running career and going back to the bike. Maybe I should have bought myself a “3” sticker for my car.

So yes, I know a half marathon is a thing all by itself and doesn’t mean getting halfway through a real marathon. Yes, I know it’s hard and is an accomplishment in its own right. It’s 10.1 miles further than I have ever run. If you tell me you ran a half marathon, I will tell you, “Yay, you! That is awesome! I could never do that! Well, I mean I definitely could do that if I wanted to and trained for it a little bit, but I don’t ever want to do that! So good for you!” But if you put a little “13.1” sticker on your car, I am going to think, “Well look at that: you got halfway to 26.2! Keep trying, sport! You’ll get there!”

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying that now, if you feel the same way, you can have a sticker (or magnet, if you can’t commit yourself permanently) expressing this sentiment. Introducing Bill’s Head’s Store, opening with three 13.1-themed designs:

Oval car sticker reading "13.1. Next time I'll try harder."
halfway-square
tryharder-square

 

You can buy one to humble-brag about your own accomplishment, or your can put it next to your “26.2” sticker to make fun of people who only made it halfway.

* * *

With all this build-up I know it sounds like the 13.1 stickers were the point of Bill’s Head’s Store, but really they were an afterthought because I felt like I needed more than one design on offer when the store opened. The original point of the store was to finally follow through on this idea I’ve had for years to make fun of those sanctimonious “Choose Life” stickers:

Bumper sticker reading "Choose Death. Your savior did!"

I don’t go in for car decoration, so I won’t be sporting any of my new products on my own car. But you should definitely go buy some, and/or tell all your friends and loved ones about Bill’s Head’s Store. And keep an eye out for new designs arriving soon. Maybe. Sometime.

(P.S. There’s also a catchy, easy-to-remember URL: billsbumper.com.)

Air France: frogs are in the air and the revolution’s coming

Flying Air France will make you happy if you're a frog. But watch out for the guillotine in business class.
Sep 202014
 

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!”

Air France "Happy Legs" ad

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:

Air France "Revolutionary Comfort" 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:

Air France "Revolutionary Comfort" ad with guillotine
From Air France. Guillotine picture by Christian Ries / Wikimedia Commons

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:

Air France ad showing close-up of a foot, with a plan flying the background

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.

Notes

*
The British started calling the French “frogs” in the 17th or 18th century. According to The Word Detective this was based on “French consumption of frogs’ legs (anathema to the beef-loving British), as well as the presence of frogs on the coat of arms of the city of Paris.” Long before that, though, the Brits were using frog as a general term of abuse for anyone they didn’t like, including Jesuits and the Dutch (who were also called “froglanders”).
The guillotine shown here is the official guillotine of Luxembourg, used for executions up until 1821. You can find great information about the history of guillotines at Bois de Justice, and if you can wait 5 years you can have him build you a really nice guillotine replica.

But of that day and hour knoweth no man

In which Bill considers biblical confusion about when midnight is
Sep 032014
 

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).

Notes

*
Insert scary noises and lightning bolts here.
Matthew 24:3643, New International Version, boring parts omitted.