Attack of the Crab Monsters

My children are happiest in water. Usually, if there’s any conflict between them, I can put them in a pool, or failing that, a bath tub (and if that’s not possible, I can turn a hose on them out on the back porch) and it improves their mood (or at least redirects their ire from each other to me). I took a trip with my family to Australia in 2010, when my children Joel and Maya were six and three years old, respectively. When they talk about Australia, they talk almost exclusively about time spent in water—oceans, pools, one particularly rainy day in Tasmania, etc.

Joel, in particular, tells a story about having his pinky pinched by a crab while we were at the beach on the southern coast near Melbourne. This story has grown with retelling in the two years since; it now concludes with my brave son glaring at the offending crab still attached to his hand, then flinging it high in the air with a flick of the wrist, presumably to splash back into the ocean when it finally lands somewhere over the horizon. (The actual story involves a lot of tears followed by promises of ice cream.)

I was recently alerted by Friend of IBD and author of the Nature Geek blog Katie Fisk to the existence of something called a Japanese spider crab (pictured above in a photo by Hans Hillewaert). I Googled the spider crab and came across this pre-1920 photo from Popular Science Magazine. I assumed at first that this was a big, Internet-based practical joke at my expense, but these things appear to actually exist. It turns out that Japanese spider crabs can measure up to 13 feet from claw to claw.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is in the ocean, so this is something I did not want to know—first because the mere existence of such an animal is terrifying, and second because my son, now almost eight years old, continues to antagonize crabs by telling and escalating the story of being attacked in Australia. With a couple more retellings, the offending crab will be one of these enormous Japanese spider crabs rather than the tiny thing it actually was. Eventually, the story will turn into this:

This is a real-life example of one of my favorite graphic design techniques—scale shift, taking a small object and making it huge so that people see it in a different way. In the book Interpretation By Design (just several thousand copies left, order soon!), we use the example of an image of an acorn blown up to cover an entire wall. I can also imagine an exhibit about great inventions beginning with a huge image of a paperclip (certainly a great invention if there ever was one).

Scale shift works by making big things small, as well. Imagine an exhibit about human history (to name one small topic) beginning with a wall covered with an image of outer space. Off to one side of the image, a small, blue-green planet is marked with an arrow and the text, “You are here.”

Whether you’re making small things big or big things small, scale shift is one way to interest viewers by subverting their expectations.

Thankfully for all of us, there are no real giant mutant acorns or paper clips coming to kill us as we splash innocently in the ocean on vacation. Unfortunately for all of us, the Japanese spider crab is real, and it’s ticked because Joel is telling that story again.

Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s Been a While

It has been more than a year since I’ve written about my grammar pet peeves. This is because every time I write about grammar, I make some horrendous mistake like using the wrong your or there, or spelling grammar as grammer. Nevertheless, I’m going to venture into a few points that I’ve been noticing lately.

Have vs. Have Got
If you watch a lot of Monty Python or, alternatively, are British, you frequently hear have got when it seems have would suffice. (Those of you not on government computers will see what I mean in the YouTube video above.) Certain grammar purists and other nerds insist that have got is redundant and annoying. But many people with friends and social lives feel that have got is one of those idiomatic phrases that has so permeated (or, as my horrible boss at my previous job used to say, impermanated) the language that it’s now acceptable. In fact, some, like the authors of the Grammar Girl blog, suggest that have got adds emphasis that have lacks.

Since you most often see have got used with a contracted form of have, (“I’ve got this mole I think I should get checked out”), I think that have got is acceptable in informal settings, like in a blog or at the dermatologist’s office. While I’d steer clear of have got in formal writing, it’s undeniable that without the phrase we wouldn’t have The Beatles’ “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” Monty Python’s French castle guard’s “He’s already got one” (above), or Shea’s landmark two-part blog series, “I’ve Got Problems.”

Awhile vs. A While
This recently came up on a friend’s Facebook page. She just put it out there: “use of ‘awhile’ versus ‘a while’. discuss.” And people did. This is what my friends are like.

Anyway, a while is a noun phrase that means “an amount of time”; awhile is an adverb that means “for an amount of time.” When you use the noun (It’s going to be a while before we regain the readers we lose because of this post), it’s two words. When you’re modifying a verb (I need to think awhile), it’s one word. So you’d be correct to say, “I need to think awhile” (modifies the verb to think) and, “I need to think for a while” (for an amount of time).

Hyphenated Adverbs
In a comment on the first Grammar Pet Peeves article, Friend of IBD Scott Rogers wrote this:

A pet peeve of mine … is the hyphenated adverb. The hyphen in “a series-deciding blown call” adds precision to a sequence of modifiers. The hyphen in “an obviously-fair line drive” adds no clarity, since the basic rules of English grammar make clear what is being modified by “obviously.” Now that people are getting better about plural apostrophes (“Fresh Egg’s”), I’m noticing many more hyphenated adverbs in signage (“Organically-Grown”).

I’d have rephrased this comment and claimed the thought as my own, but Scott used baseball-related examples and everything, so how could I improve upon it?

The Designated Hitter
Speaking of baseball, can we all agree that the designated hitter rule in American League baseball is an abomination? All it does is keep a bunch of fat, old has-beens in the league a few years longer to collect stats. (Thanks to The Baseball Stadium Connoisseur for the baseball card image of first-ever designated hitter Ron Blomberg).

Oftentimes
Oftentimes
is indeed a word. It’s in the dictionary, Shakespeare used it, and most importantly, it has its own entry on WikiAnswers. That said, I find it redundant and I hate it. Any time I see oftentimes in text that I’m editing, I change it to often or frequently. Then, just out of spite, I find the author’s iPhone and covertly set his alarm clock to go off at 3:00 in the morning.

April 4 vs. April 4th
This is more personal preference than grammar, but whenever I’m editing, I find myself deleting the suffixes people tack on the end of numerals in dates. What’s the difference between April 1st-4th and April 1-4? To me, the first is visually cluttered, the second clean and clear. When we’re speaking, we may say “April first through fourth,” but when you’re conveying information visually, clarity and simplicity should take precedence.

I use those -th, -rd, -st suffixes on numbers exclusively when I’m referencing that number in a sequence (for example, this is the 1,000th time you have rolled your eyes while reading this stupid blog).

Loose vs Lose
These are different words. They mean different things. I don’t know what else to say on this one.

Caps Lock
We all know that writing in all caps is bad form. When I stumble across anything other than an acronym in all caps, even a single word, I change it to lower-case italics, which achieves the same emphasis without looking disruptive. According to a story on ABC News, Google broke new ground when it released a netbook computer that made it difficult to activate caps lock.

While I applaud Google for trying to stop people from being jerks by writing in all caps, I don’t think there’s any feature in the netbook’s Chrome operating system that prevents people from writing blogs, so clearly there’s work to be done.

Also in this Series

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Who Needs a Watch?

I wake up several times a night and check my watch to see what time it is. I have really bad vision so I have to wear a watch with a light that I can put really close to my face to see the time. If I had an alarm clock large enough to see, it would look like a solar flare from Arkansas. I have told my wife that I wanted to be buried with my watch, that way (if for some strange reason), I woke up I would know what time it was. I know that won’t happen, though, because when I’m dead she’ll take one last opportunity to tell me, “That’s a dumb idea,” and pawn my watch.

Recently my watch died. This may surprise you but I had the geekiest watch on the planet (Casio G-Shock GW6900BC-1) with crazy meteorological features, solar panels, and atomic capabilities. I want to replace it, but a similar watch is expensive. My daughter Anna (the middle child) and I were talking about it and she said that I don’t need a watch since I have a phone and it has a clock.

I continued my search for a watch just to show my five-year-old daughter who was boss. Not wanting to make a huge investment in something that I’m not sure is even needed anymore, I found a really cool retro (Casio CA53W-1ZD) calculator watch, but the purchased was foiled when my wife said, “That’s a dumb idea,” after I showed her the watch. A recent Huffington Post article titled You’re Out: 20 Things That Became Obsolete This Decade mentions that a “survey by Beloit College of its class of 2014 found, few incoming freshmen know how to write in cursive or have ever worn a wristwatch.”

Let’s face it: elements of lives today will be obsolete before we know it. So what steps do we take to make sure what we are writing today isn’t the next newspaper and can continue to be relevant for generations to come? What should we do to make sure that the investment our interpretive site is making into exhibits is going to hold the test of time and not become the next set of encyclopedias?

When writing text for a brochure, exhibit, or website, remember that it is all about the relating to the reader. Visitors to our interpretive sites come for various reasons. Some want to see what the place is all about. Some are seeking an escape. Some relate to your mission. They all come because it means something to them in the first place. Regardless of why they are there, they are there and that’s an opportunity. When writing for that visitor take some time to look into the motivations behind their visit before you put pen to paper. (Okay, I know I’m not the only one that still does that too, am I?)

Think of your piece of writing like a song on played on country radio. There’s a reason that twangy stuff is so popular, and it has nothing to do with sleeveless shirts, tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Who hasn’t been dumped, lost a good dog, or been stalked by a psycho woman after you cheated on her and she dug her keys into the side of your pretty little souped-up four-wheel-drive, carved her name into your leather seats, then took a Louisville slugger to both headlights, and finally slashed a hole in all four tires. (All kidding aside, she was psycho.)

But write to relate to your audience. Country songs are written with universals in mind, so regardless of you proximity to Nashville, Tennessee, you can still relate. I’m just glad I’m writing to a primarily non-country audience today.

When creating a program or non-personal product, remember that the experience is everything. Visitors today care more about what they can do or say they did than what they can take home. No one says it better than Old Spice (that’s a phrase I never thought I would type).

As you know, people forget facts but they will remember experiences. Go out of your way to craft messages in your non-personal media that help convey the experiential process. Phrases such as “You have arrived” or “Welcome to _____!”  or wayfinding signs that indicate key photo opportunities will let visitors know that the experience has reached its precipice. I’m not saying anything bad about our visitors, but sometimes they don’t know they have arrived or have experienced something of significance if you don’t tell them.