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.

We’re Going to Disney World!


French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about a philosophical construct called the simulacrum, which holds that we are further removed from reality each day and that our culture is increasingly based on representations or copies of real things rather than real things themselves. He goes on to say that we will one day be saved from evil computers and their robots by Keanu Reeves. I may be confusing some of Baudrillard’s key points, but as you’ll see if you keep reading, my brain is a little fried at the moment.

Last week, my wife and I took our kids (Joel, age six, and Maya, age three) to Disney World in Florida for the first time. After months of planning, a long day of travel, and a morning schedule blown to smithereens by our failure to account for daylight savings, we arrived, along with roughly 8 billion other visitors, at the Magic Kingdom. We pulled up to the brightly colored entrance just off the highway, wallets open in preparation to fork over whatever toll the parking troll demanded.

There was a stiff breeze blowing, which made for a hair-raising plane landing the day before, and which was bending and ruffling the abundant foliage lining the highway that morning. One of the few items of the landscape not being blown by the wind, ironically, was a series of structures atop the tollbooth—rigidly constructed to look like flags being blown by wind. Sheila, my wife, asked, “Why don’t they just put real flags up there?”

All I could think was, Jean Baudrillard would love this.

It’s been well-documented that as a purely visual experience, Disney World is rich—saturated, consistent, and expertly crafted. With that as a given, I was struck by the second-most frequent question my kids asked during the week: “Is that real?” (The first-most frequent question was “Can we have ice cream?”) Almost invariably, the answer to both questions was No.

No, Maya, that’s not a real elephant.

No, Joel, we’re not really in a space ship going to Mars with Gary Sinese.

No, Maya, that’s not a real castle. Well, okay it’s a real building and it’s shaped like a castle but … just be quiet and eat your ice cream.

No, Joel, you can’t have more ice cream. You just had some back at the castle. The fake castle. The real building shaped like a fake castle. Be quiet and let’s go get ice cream.

No, Shea, this isn’t a real baseball game. It’s just spring training. Yes, it will still hurt if you get hit in the head with a foul ball.

One of the attractions at the Magic Kingdom is a 3D movie called Mickey’s PhilharMagic, the effects of which are as convincing as any I’ve ever seen (though I’ve not seen Avatar yet). Throughout the movie, my daughter kept reaching out, grabbing at specters of Donald Duck and floating wizard hats. When a loud noise or sudden movement scared her, I’d say, “Don’t worry, it’s not real.” This settled her down until the image of water coming at the audience on screen was accompanied by actual mist being sprayed on the audience. Maya looked at me after the show as if to say, “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore, but you owe me ice cream.”

tree_of_lifeDisney’s Animal Kingdom presents an impressive interpretive experience, including talented interpreters and the opportunity to witness live, exotic animals roaming quasi-free on the immense park grounds. The centerpiece of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, however, is a structure called the Tree of Life, which is neither a real tree nor actually alive.

Epcot Center features something called the World Showcase, which gives visitors tiny, bite-sized tastes of life in other countries. I have never been to Germany, but I have a distinct impression of the country based on several layovers in the Frankfurt airport, select scenes from the movie European Vacation, and a meal I had with my family as a child at Epcot Center’s German pavilion. (Based on each of these, I’d really like to go there one day.) Here’s the fascinating thing: Of the 10 countries Disney chose to represent at Epcot, one of them was the USA. Granted, the World Showcase gives you only a superficial, cursory look at each of the countries represented within, but I can’t begin to imagine what a person would gain from a superficial, cursory look at the country they’re already in.

Baudrillard maintains that we are removed from reality by our perception of the world through symbols and even language, that we no longer interact directly with the real world but through filters. We interact with representations of the world, but not the world itself. If this is true, then Disney has mastered and made the most of this fact. The perfectly controlled Disney experience—“wild” animals there for your viewing pleasure, a Happy Meal portion of American culture, and flags that blow even when there is no wind—is summed up by a most pervasive symbol—the ubiquitous Mickey ears on shirts, balloons, napkins, ticket stubs, and even a notable water tower just outside the park.

You see the Mickey ears and you can’t help but think, This is fun. And you know what? It was.

Our Final Message from Chicago

It’s late on Friday night, there’s packing to be done, and a week of eating traditional Chicago delicacies has left our fingers too fat to effectively operate our computer keyboards, so we decided to end the week with a video blog. Then we realized we were tired, so we left it to our youngest children, Shea’s son William and Paul’s daughter Maya, to convey our final message from Chicago.

Insurance Cacciatore

DSC02996Okay, so I’m here again blogging about food. We (Paul, Sheila, Joel, Maya, Sebrena, Gracie, Anna, William, and I) just had an amazing dinner at Giordano’s next to Willis Tower (the tower formerly known as the Sears Tower) and on our walk home we came across a business whose sign sent mixed messages. I usually excel at reading mixed signals, after years of experience receiving them and interpreting them from countless suitors.  Who am I kidding? The only signals that I received come to my radio.

For some reason this real estate business’ signage screams restaurant. A large amount of my problem has to do with the name Cacciatore. I tend to think of a chicken dish that carries the same name. With that aside, the style, shape, and presentation of the type still makes this business look like a restaurant. Instead of smart people in suits, I picture fat guys in pasta sauce-smeared aprons. The word spacing also has a menu-like quality to it. It looks as though it should say ribs, burgers, barbecue, and salads instead of appraisals, real estate, mortgages, and insurance. The shaping of the “Cacciatore” portion of the plate, I mean sign, also lends itself towards a casual invitation to dine.

So if you in the Chicago area and find yourself hankering for some insurance, Cacciatore’s is your place.