WANTED: Poster

March 11, 2018

Sooner or later you will be asked to do a presentation, one requiring a full display of your creative and oratorical skills. So how do you overwhelm your audience if your greatest skill heretofore has been talking behind the backs of your coworkers?

The answer is the poster. Yes, that stalwart of boardrooms and bedrooms, the poster offers style, format, color, readability, attractiveness and showmanship—traits that, when properly applied, can easily camouflage your lack of knowledge.

Here, then, is my brief guide through the do’s and don’ts of creating an effective poster, one that, if followed to the letter, will spellbind your audiences and confound your critics. So let’s get started!


DON’T create your poster on just one or two large boards, especially billboards; they’re clumsy and a real nuisance to lug around. Billboards frequently don’t fit well into a glove box. They strain your muscles and your patience, and when they fall down, they generally tend to crush anyone standing beneath them.

DO make up your poster in a large number of separate sections of roughly comparable size. However, resist the temptation to shape each section irregularly so as to resemble a jigsaw puzzle. Mount each section individually on a colored board of its own of slightly larger dimensions; this frames each poster segment with a nice border. Where the borders are restricted, enhance them with barbed wire.

DON’T vary type sizes and typefaces, especially in the same sentence.

DO design your poster as though it were the layout for a magazine. Select fonts and sizes that work well together and dismiss the ones that don’t with only a week’s severance.

DON’T use too small a type size for your poster. This is the single most common error, aside from writing in crayon. Using 8- or 10-point type will only please your optometrist. And never, ever, use 2-point type except under a court order.

DO use a type size that draws a crowd around your poster. Failing that, offer free beer.

DON’T pick a font simply because it was the only one left after all the others had paired off. More importantly, avoid the urge to choose a font where the lower-case ‘m’ resembles a rear view of someone bending over at the waist.

DO, by all means, use colors in your poster. But always try to use them without letting them know they’re being used.

DON’T leave people wondering who did the work. Put the names of all authors and their institutional affiliations just below the title. It’s also a nice touch to include the full names of any correctional institutions they may have attended.

DO use a high-quality laser printer to print your poster. Where funding is an issue, select someone with good penmanship. Also, consider adjusting the kerningthe space between each letter—to reduce the risk from pickpockets.


DON’T use sexist language. Avoid gender-specific words, as in this example: “Anyone who parked in Lot 3 will have his car removed.” Instead, make this gender-neutral with: “Anyone who parked in Lot 3 is fired.”

DO consider adding a helpful tutorial section to your poster, complete with photos taken with a hidden camera and instructions on where to leave the cash.

DON’T use chalk outlines to represent the competition.

DO give credit where it is due; just do so in a low voice.

DON’T expect anyone to spend more than three minutes looking at your poster. If they do, check to see if you still have your wallet.

DO be descriptive. Remember, you are not limited to 50 words—unless it exceeds your vocabulary.

DON’T forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered. Don’t forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered. Don’t forget the Rule Of Three, which says that things repeated three times are more likely to be remembered.


DO treat people you encounter with courtesy and respect; however, do not follow them home.

DON’T stand too close to the audience; it’s much easier to deflect objects when they are hurled at you from a distance.

DO realize that a poster should be accessible. A little informality can be helpful, but stop short of calling everyone “baby.”

DON’T put your hands in the pockets of your sport coat if you’re not actually wearing your sport coat.

DO offer a firm handshake to everyone in the audience; this should leave little time for your presentation and get you off the hook.

DON’T fidget or slouch, especially if you are lying on the floor.

DO ask for clarification if you do not understand someone’s question. Then ask again and again and again until they tire of speaking to you.

DON’T use correction fluid to hide a pimple.

DO offer to explain complex formulae as soon as you get back from break. Then take off.

DON’T tease the audience; it can only come back to haunt you later on when, after the presentation, they are outside waiting for you with baseball bats.


When House Arrest Really Is House Arrest

August 28, 2017

A Right Turn Into The 4th Dimension

Not too long ago, if you ran afoul of the law, were arrested and deemed a flight risk, you were locked up in the pokey until your trial. Granted, even in the good ol’ days money talked, and your lawyer could probably persuade a judge lenient or dimwitted enough to place you under house arrest. Today, though, when the courts let freedom ring, house arrest means wearing judicial bling – an ankle bracelet – to keep you within police radar range while you hobnob around the neighborhood, visit old haunts and even older friends, and continue to engage in the same illicit behavior that got you arrested in the first place.

But what if house arrest meant you were truly unable to leave the friendly confines of your quaint little crib? Imagine every front, side and back door that once opened to the outside world now only leads you to some other room within your own home. And every window that once held vistas of the Manhattan skyline or the Bronx County courthouse now only lets you peek into some other room of your own home.

Well, all this and more could be yours, penal contestants, if your dream house were suddenly transported from the 3rd dimension into the 4th dimension.

Turn Right

Now, those of you who finished the third grade and are conversant in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity are no doubt saying, “What the hell are you talking about, you idiot? Time is the 4th dimension! How do you move a house into time?” To which I say, Hold on there, Baba Looie. Let’s think of the 4th dimension as the next logical, geometric construct from the 3rd dimension.

For argument’s sake – and I’m writing this, so it’s my argument – let’s define the first three dimensions geometrically by saying that each dimension exists at a 90˚or right angle to the other. Length is the 1st dimension and width is the 2nd dimension. Width exists at a 90˚ or right angle to length; in other words, if length runs east to west (or west to east for those of you in Los Angeles), then width runs north to south. The 3rd dimension is set at a 90˚ or right angle to both length and width – this is height. As an example, consider a flagpole standing at the corner where Broadway and 96th Street intersect; the neon lights are not as bright at this end of Broadway, so the flagpole should stand out. Broadway represents length, 96th Street represents width, and the flagpole represents height, as well as one more thing to walk into if you’re not paying attention. Where length, width and height all intersect at the same point, we have the three distinct dimensions that define our physical world.

Following this logic, then, the 4th dimension would have to be set at a 90˚ or right angle to all of these three dimensions – length, width and height – simultaneously. Huh?

Let’s go back to the first two dimensions for a moment, shall we? Length and width define a plane, which is a flat surface like, say, a sheet of paper (or, perhaps, the top of one’s head). On this sheet of paper we shall draw a three-dimensional object, such as this cube.


Now, a cube is made up of six faces or squares, and a square, of course, has four equal sides. In this two-dimensional representation, however, we actually only see three sides – the front, the top and the right; we cannot see the side on which the cube sits, nor do we see its left side or its, ahem, back side.

In order to give the above cube the illusion of depth, three lines forming part of the top and right faces of the cube are shortened and set at acute angles to the front face of the cube. Thus, the top and right faces of the cube are not really squares (Got that, daddy-o?), they are trapezoids, i.e., only two of the four sides are parallel. What you are seeing is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional cube; your brain fleshes out the parts unseen. Thus, whenever you see this pancaked version of a cube, you are conditioned to accept it as a three-dimensional object. N’est-ce pas?

Your New Home, Minus The Ceiling

Let’s now imagine how a home would be constructed in the 4th dimension. For years builders have constructed typical (typical?) three-dimensional homes by referring to plans drawn on a two-dimensional plane: a blueprint. To imagine, then, how a fourth-dimensional house would be represented in the 3rd dimension, let’s look from our three-dimensional perspective at a house built in a two-dimensional world.

With grateful acknowledgment to Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), let us take a look at a 6-room house in the town of Flatland somewhere in upstate New York, where everything, including the town’s residents, exists in only two dimensions. The house would look something like this:




Clearly, the owner is colorblind or the hardware store had a closeout on paint. In any event, the house is laid out like a ranch house with every room on one level. The rooms are numbered 1 – 6. Each room has four walls, and every wall has a huge sliding glass door (Hey, the owner can do whatever he wants!). Each shared wall leads into an adjacent room; walls that are not shared lead outside the house. Thus, room #1 shares one wall, its south wall, with room #2; the west, north and east walls all lead outside the house. Room #2 is an interior room, sharing all four of its walls with the four adjacent rooms – the north wall is shared with room #1, the south wall is shared with room #3, the west wall is shared with room #5, and the east wall is shared with room #6. Room #3 shares two walls, its north wall with room #2 and its south wall with room #4. Room #4 shares only one wall, its north wall, with room #3. Room #5 shares only its east wall with room #2, and room #6 shares only its west wall with room #2. Everybody got that?

You can enter this house through any room that has a wall facing the outside except room #2, which is in the interior of the house. Rooms 1, 4, 5 and 6 have three walls with access into the house; room #3 has two such walls, the west and east walls. Thank goodness the house comes standard with indoor/outdoor carpeting.

Once inside the house, access to each room is somewhat limited. If you are in room #1, for example, the only way to get to rooms 5 or 6 is to pass through room #2; the same is true if you want to get to room #3. To get to room #4, you have to walk through room #2 and room #3, which at 3:00 AM is not likely to win you any brownie points from anyone who might be asleep there.

Well, We’re Movin’ On Up…

Now let’s “fold” this house into three-dimensional space. We do this by folding along each shared wall, just as you would fold a flat piece of paper with six connected squares into a cube. For those whose opposable thumbs leave them all thumbs, this house is in the shape of a cross, which makes this task rather easy.

First, fold room #4 up – i.e., into three-dimensional space – along its shared wall with room #3. Then fold all four sides of room #2 – i.e., along the walls it shares with rooms 1, 5, 6 and 3 – up into three-dimensional space. Finally, connect the south wall of room #4 with the north wall of room #1 and, voila, we have a cube–er, three-dimensional house.

Now, one way to represent our now three-dimensional house in two-dimensional space is to draw it as a cube, as we did above. If we wish to see all the rooms, though, a combination of trapezoids and rectangles is needed to give the impression that we are looking into a three-dimensional cube.

house1 frontback1

The figure on the left is a view of our house looking through room #1 back to room #3, the smaller rectangle; room #2 is the base of the cube; rooms 5 and 6 are the sides; and room #4 is the top.

The figure on the right is the house with the sides stretched to make the relationship of each room clearer, as well as more bizarre. In this figure, rooms 1 and 3 are highlighted, with room #1 in the front and room #3 in the back. Since every side of every face of the cube is actually a wall, every wall then is connected to a wall of another room. What this means is that no wall now leads outside the house. No matter what room you are in, regardless of which wall you punch, walking through its sliding glass door will always lead you into another room.

Stairway To Heaven?

Now let’s put our original two-dimensional owner-occupant in room #1. If he (yes, only a man would let someone fold his two-dimensional house into three-dimensional space) walks through the sliding glass door on the north wall, he now enters room #4. When the house existed in its original two-dimensional state – and the owner was somewhat shy about waking his crazed, knife-wielding cousin snoring away in room #3 – he would have decided to exit the house through the sliding glass door on the north wall, and trudge through the mud all the way to the other end of the house until he finally reached room #4. This could be very disconcerting, especially after a late-night burrito and mocha latte snack, as room #4 had the only bathroom.

When our Flatlander looks through a sliding glass door now, regardless of which wall he chooses, he always sees into the room adjacent to that wall. Remember, in the 2nd dimension there is no concept of up or down because those directions only exist in the 3rd dimension. In the 2nd dimension he reached every room of his house by simply walking – or perhaps gliding – straight ahead, or turning left or right. Now in three-dimensional space, however, every wall is connected to another room, and that other room may well be on another level – the second floor or the basement. But as far as our owner-occupant knows, he is still walking on one level as he had always done, albeit now confused as hell.

With his once two-dimensional house now folded into three-dimensional space, our owner-occupant is unable leave the house, as each wall is now connected to another wall, and there is no wall anywhere leading outside the house. His only escape from his house would be to have it “unfolded” in a lower dimension – in this case, back into two-dimensional space.


Now imagine a three-dimensional house folded into fourth-dimensional space. We here in the 3rd dimension can no more point toward a direction that is at a right angle to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd dimensions than a two-dimensional Flatlander could point to the 3rd dimension, but in theory a dimension outside our world does exist. From our lofty three-dimensional perch we can look “down” and peer into the two-dimensional world of Flatland, just as someone – or some thing – from the 4th dimension can gaze down into our three-dimensional world.

If your gorgeous Park Avenue penthouse were suddenly folded into fourth dimensional space with you inside it, you would find yourself trapped forever within your apartment. Every wall, floor and ceiling would be connected to another wall or floor or ceiling. And if you think of each wall, floor and ceiling as simply another surface on a cube – i.e., the room in which you are sitting and sulking – then you may find that, unless your apartment was folded into the fourth dimension with care, you could exit the sliding glass door on the west wall of your bedroom and find yourself standing on the ceiling of your living room.

Needless to say, 24 hours in this funhouse might well punish you more cruelly and unusually than anything the Supreme Court could have imagined.

A Lesson From The Zen Master

February 17, 2017

A koan  (pronounced: /kuo-an/, Chinese; /mugwump/, French; /boring/, English) is a story, question, or statement etched in wet cement that is used in Zen-practice to test a student’s progress by provoking what Zen masters call the “great doubt” or “Big D.”

The word koan comes from the Japanese mispronounciation of an obscure Tibetan phrase, “Chap sang gawa yo rey?” – literally, “Where’s the bathroom?”

Koans and their study developed in China within the context of open questions posed by Emperor Yong-le (Ming Dynasty) to newly-weds who had forgotten to invite his majesty to the reception. In most instances, the emperor was appeased with a slice of wedding cake, his weight in silk pajamas, and a twirl around the rumpus room with the Missus.

Essence Of Enlightenment

The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students, as opposed to an earlier practice, wherein a master spent hours yelling at his reflection in the mirror. Whatever insight this “Eureka!” moment might bring, its verification was always interpersonal – and very noisy. Thus, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting to get out of washing the dishes after dinner.

This mutual inquiry into the meaning of the encounters between masters and students gave rise to a paradigm: one now looked at the enlightened activities of one’s lineal forebears not only to understand one’s own spiritual identity, but to also understand why one looked so much like the milkman.

Literary Practice

Koan practice developed from crafting snippets of encounter-dialogue with the literati into well-edited stories. This interaction often resulted with the “educated class” being relieved of their wallets. Eventually though, the methodology was amended to affect a more literary approach: teachers whose vehicles were stolen found their books left behind on the curb.

There were other dangers posed by encounter-dialogue. An early poetry competition devolved into a free-for-all when a contestant was unable to rhyme “solipsism.”

The style of writing Zen texts has evolved over the years, from the use of exclamation points at the beginning of a sentence – indicating a master’s anger over a student’s temerity to even ask a question – to the excessive use of smiley faces and other emoticons.

Koan Practice, or What’s My Mantra?

A koan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation or other activities, such as pole dancing or dating a pigeon. During koan practice a teacher may probe a student’s ken using “checking” questions to validate an experience, or by surprising the student with an obscene phone call.

Koan practice is particularly important among the Rinzai sect. These practitioners concentrate on qi breathing and its effect on the body’s center of gravity – as opposed to, say, looking for oncoming traffic while crossing the street.

A qualified koan teacher provides instruction in koan practice in private, though some are known to allow viewing through peepholes. In one particular case involving a student named Hu, his teacher wrote:

“Concentrate yourself into this jar of pitted olives, Hu. Make your whole body one pickled inquiry. Day and night, work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations.”

To which, it is recorded, Hu replied, “Are you nuts?!”

Historical Antecedents of Koan Practice

Before the tradition of meditating on koans, the renowned teacher Huangbo Xi (720–723 A.D.) was recorded to have said, “Yours is a clear-cut case, but I will spare you the thirty lashes.” This came as a relief to his students, who had no idea what their diapered master was talking about.

By the Sung Dynasty, the term koan had evolved to describe a teacher who, after advising a student over a cup of tea at a local restaurant, refused to pick up the check. The noted philosopher and teacher Wan-Yu is said to have instructed his students to contemplate the phrase, “Crime doesn’t pay, and neither do I,” while he slipped out the back door.

Modern Western Understanding

Today, English-speaking, non-Zen practitioners use koans to refer to universal truisms, such as, “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the original word you thought of,” or ethereal, often unanswerable questions like, “Does being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, refer to Eastern or Pacific time?”

Although there may be traditional answers to many koans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers by masters who couldn’t come up with anything original themselves.

Appropriate answers to koans vary, since different teachers demand different answers. In most cases though, the master is not looking for a specific answer, but rather for evidence that the student can pay the tuition.

Love And Hate, Spelled X-K-8

June 3, 2014

A couple of months ago I bought a 2003 Jaguar XK8 coupe with a black metallic exterior (I had originally thought a dust storm had rolled through town until I realized that those flecks of gold were actually embedded in the paint). I had long wanted one of these beautiful cars, and so when I saw one for sale at a reasonable price, I made the leap.

The sleek, sloping lines of my XK8, harkening back to the E-types of yore, seemed to me to embody the human form at its best, providing the second best sensual experience I have ever had while alone. But my romance with my XK8 has not been as smooth as its ride.

1) The Codependent Relationship.  I could function without this car — take the subway, the bus — but leisurely rides on public transportation have gone the way of leather straps for standees. Besides, I need that 340-watt stereo system, leather seats, carpeting and — oh, my — the ogling from passers-by. And, as it turned out, the XK8 needed my bank account to remain mobile.

2) The Controlling Relationship. One partner makes the rules, the other partner follows them.

Rule #1: Any component relying upon electricity to perform its duties will suffer a falling-out with said partner, and the resulting divorce will have catastrophic effects on any component close enough to hear the owner cursing.

Rule #2: Any resemblance between the cost of Original Equipment manufactured specifically for the Jaguar XK8 and similar parts available at popular prices from a local auto parts store is strictly coincidental.

3) The Rebound Relationship. I suffered from a loss of enthusiasm for driving; my XK8 had suffered from a loss of power to the headlamps. We were both wandering around in the dark.

4) The Open Relationship. We are both committed to each other but, truth be told, we have both strayed. I did have a May-December dalliance with a Volvo V70 TC, a tour de force hidden fling with not one but two MG Midgets, and a Roman Holiday with an MGA during the gas shortage of 1973. My XK8 had a spate of adulterous affairs with various service departments of Chicago-area Jaguar dealers before settling down with me in Philadelphia.

5) The Asexual Relationship. Oh, come on, now! I’ve only recently come to grips with why I spend so much time polishing the little beauty.

6) The Trophy Relationship. Who wouldn’t look good in an XK8? Okay, maybe me. Let’s just say I don’t look as bad as someone driving a minivan whilst on a cross-country trip with a 10-year-old who just learned to whistle.

7) The Imperfect Relationship. I know that owning a Jaguar XK8 is like descending through Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell…

1. Limbo: To buy an XK8 or trudge through a slough of Nissan Versas?

2. Lust: Always a favorite. I mean, after all, it is a JAG.

3. Gluttony: You can never have too much leather.

4. Greed: Ah, those who hoard possessions and those who spend lavishly on them. Yep, that’s a Jaguar owner.

5. Anger: Occurs every time I hand over my credit card for yet another Original Equipment replacement part.

6. Heresy: How dare you say there are better made, more reliable alternatives to my Jaguar!

7. Violence: Often follows a stint in Circles 5 and 6.

8. Fraud: Translation: Used car dealers.

9. Treachery: According to Dante, all residents herein reside in a frozen lake. Hmm… must have had that marvelous XK8 air conditioner running full blast.


Dealing with Status Quo Bias

November 22, 2013

Heuristics: The systematically biased, unconscious shortcuts people use to make intuitive decisions.

Look at figure 1 below.

Figure 1.

The clear sky gives the illusion that the buildings are closer than those obscured by the haze. Considering that we are in New York City and the objects in question are part of the Pheonix skyline, both photographs represent a distance greater than one can cover in a 10-minute jog.

Would You Trade?

Breaking from the status quo is, for most people, emotionally uncomfortable. Consider the following choices.

A famous experiment involved randomly giving students a gift consisting of either a coffee mug or a candy bar. When offered the chance to trade, few wanted to exchange for the alternative gift. Of course, none of the participants had been told that the coffee mug had had a tiny hole drilled into its base, or that the candy bar had been sitting in direct sunlight for 45 continuous days.

The power of this bias was quantified in a related experiment. Students at an Ivy League university were randomly chosen to receive coffee mugs – the candy having been withheld due to pending litigation over food poisoning. Those with mugs were asked to name the minimum price at which they would sell their mugs. Students at a neighboring community college, who were without mugs, were asked to name the maximum price they would be willing to pay to obtain the mugs. The median price – 6 months in jail and a $10,000 fine – was more than twice the median offer price, $1.59, plus shipping and handling. Clearly, ownership of the mugs increased their perceived value.

This bias may help explain why people who believe they can talk to wild animals are often eaten by them. Likewise, it might be a contributing factor explaining why companies choose to promote troublesome employees instead of simply shoving them off the nearest bridge.

Social Norms

Social norms tend to reinforce one’s preference for the status quo. For example, courts view a sin of commission (lying about your credentials to get the lead astrophysicist position at NASA) as more serious than a sin of omission (saying that the dog ate your credentials and still getting the job at NASA).

Another example: Government decision makers are often reluctant to adopt tax reform if there are “losers” as well as “gainers.” As most elected officials are themselves seen as losers, there is rarely an instance when gainers outnumber them, making tax reform nigh impossible.

For many organizations, lack of information, uncertainty, and a tendency to treat that gaping hole in the Titanic’s hull by calling a plumber, promote holding to the status quo. In the absence of an unequivocal case-changing course, why face the unpleasant prospect of change? Thus, many organizations continue to support under-performing executives due to either: a)  a lack of solid evidence that they’ve failed, or b) witnesses. Killing a capo di tutti capi may be a good business decision, but it is generally uncomfortable for the person involved.

Going Forward

We’ve explored some of the causes of status quo bias, now let us consider possible remedies. Here are some tips for countering status quo bias that can be immediately implemented:

  1. When you hear comments like “let’s wait and see” or “let’s meet next month to see how the project is going,” question whether you’re hearing status quo bias, or whether the conference leader has a job interview coming up.
  2. Think about what your objectives are, and whether they are best served by letting someone else fail for a change.
  3. Identify who might be disadvantaged by changing the status quo, and look for ways to eliminate them.
  4. Ask yourself whether you would choose the status quo alternative – a cheaper product made in Jaipur by preschoolers – if, in fact, you knew you could get away with it.
  5. Avoid overestimating the difficulty of switching from the status quo, unless it cuts into your lunch hour.
  6. Actively manage migration away from the status quo—communicate dissatisfaction with the status quo by holding your breath until you are blue in the face.
  7. Note that change becomes the status quo over time – unless it’s change for a $10 bill, in which case it becomes 2 fives, a fin and 5 singles, a roll of quarters, or the price of a gallon of regular gas.

Leaping Over Tall Buildings In A Single Bound…

February 17, 2013

The Legend Of Spring-Heeled Jack

While riding the Broad Street subway I began musing about a vacation across the pond and searched the internet for the lowest airfares between Philadelphia and London. I found a very reasonable fare of $156 from Philadelphia International to Heathrow on British Airways, but taxes and fees were an additional $385, more than twice the airfare, raising the total to $541, one way. One way. I began to weigh the cost of the trip against my present circumstances – that fellow over there is taking off his shoe just to pick his feet, isn’t he? My outrage and my fears were short-lived, however, when a quick check of my bank balance revealed that my farthest trip would be limited to the last stop on the subway.

So, the next day I was on the Broad Street subway line again, my vacation underway. Like any urban dweller, I was trying to avoid making direct eye contact with potential homicidal maniacs – like that lemon sitting across from me, for instance – and began staring at an advertisement for BBC America. As I began to daydream about riding the Tube at the end of the 19th century, a story I had read about a leaping Londoner came to mind.

Starting in 1817 and peaking in the mid-19th century, newspaper reports in The Times of London and elsewhere described a “peculiar leaping man” who startled and attacked young women. Initially, few people believed these tales, and today English parents consider it a fable, used to control their misbehaving children. This occurred, after all, in Victorian London, where plague and poverty ravaged the city, and rumors were more persistent than diarrhea.

But in January of 1838, the Lord Mayor of London received a letter from a resident of Peckham describing an attack on Polly Adams on October 11th of the previous year by a man that could leap over fences. The writer referred to the assailant as “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

On February 18, 1838, Lucy Scales, age 18, and her sister Margaret were on their way home at 8:30 that evening after visiting their brother in Limehouse. Suddenly, as they passed the entrance to Green Dragon Alley, the terrifying cloaked silhouette of Spring-Heeled Jack leaped from the darkness and exhaled a jet of blue flames from his mouth that blasted Lucy’s face. The teenager screamed; she fell to the ground, blinded, and suffered a fit. Spring-Heeled Jack then jumped high over his victim and her sister and landed on the roof of a nearby house, from where he bounded off into the night — a prodigious leap at any time of the day, mind you.

Talk of a mysterious leaping madman attacking women quickly circulated around London, and further sightings and attacks were reported. In one especially notorious incident, the leaping miscreant tried to snatch 18-year-old Jane Alsop right out of her own home. Ms. Alsop, who lived in the district of Bow, provided the first reported physical description of Spring-Heeled Jack:

He presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire… He wore a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed… to resemble white oilskin.

Family members who had saved the young woman noted afterwards that the menace did not run, rather he bounced away.

A week after the attack on Jane Alsop, a similar one was attempted. Here, though, a young servant boy witnessed the attack. He described the assailant as tall and thin, with pointed ears and fiery eyes, and wearing a cloak. The boy also noticed a gold filigree ‘W’ embroidered onto the front of the man’s wardrobe. Assuming that it was not a high school letter earned in track and field, the public now had a clue as to the man’s surname, or pedigree. The incident abruptly ended when the boy screamed, alerting neighbors who quickly opened their shutters. Sensing an exit cue, Spring-Heeled Jack rocketed over the roofs on Commercial Road.

When the boy regained his senses, he was interrogated repeatedly by the authorities. His inquisitors wondered what was the significance of the embroidered ‘W’; some conjectured that the glyph was the initial of the Marquis of Waterford, a notorious prankster who in the past had gone to great lengths to perpetrate his hoaxes. The Marquis was also something of an athlete, but even his physical gifts could not equate with a man who could leap 25 feet into the air, as the leaping menace was alleged to have done.

As Spring-Heeled Jack’s infamy grew, more reports appeared in the newspapers. Mary Stevens of Battersea was attacked, as was 18-year-old Lucy Squires in Limehouse, as the leaping menace showed his knack for spotting victims who had reached the legal age of consent. In both instances he tore at his female victims’ clothes and ripped their flesh with hands that felt like iron. Those who saw his feet swore he had springs in his boot heels, meaning that, contrary to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, they were not just for wandering.

In 1843, Spring-Heeled Jack proved to be an equalitarian menace to society, appearing in Northhamptonshire, Hampshire and East Anglia, where he frightened the drivers of mail coaches by leaping from trees onto their horses. Each time, after riding the spooked animal for a bit and apparently not deviating from the mail carrier’s appointed rounds, he would end the escapade by leaping from the horse into a nearby tree.

Two years later he was seen in West London. Reports came from Ealing and Hanwell of a weird figure leaping over hedges and walls, shrieking and groaning. This perpetrator turned out to be a practical joker from Brentford who spent the next few years shrieking and groaning from Dartmoor Prison.

In November of 1845, Spring-Heeled Jack confronted 13-year-old prostitute Maria Davies in Bermondsy. In full view of frightened onlookers, he “breathed fire into her face” then tossed Ms. Davies off a bridge; she drowned in the open sewer below. Spring-Heeled Jack was now a murderer.

Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, the manic leaper was reportedly seen all over England. As fear kept most people off the streets after dark, Londoners willing to take the law into their own hands formed vigilante committees, patrolling the streets at night, trying to track down the miscreant. Not to be outdone, the police put out extra patrols, but no one came close to catching him.

This is not to say, though, that there were no arrests. In 1877, Spring-Heeled Jack appeared at Aldershot Army Barracks. An army officer was arrested on a charge of impersonating the menace, but he was later released. Later, another man was arrested in Warwickshire when he was caught trying to jump to escape; he was wearing a white sheet and a pair of boots with carriage springs attached. The man was later seen in Liverpool jumping on rooftops in September 1904 – being after Labor Day, one wonders if the menace had exchanged his white sheet for a darker one. His last reported sighting had him scaling the steeple of a church before disappearing forever behind a row of houses. That same year more than 100 residents of Everton saw a man in a flowing, non-white cloak and black boots making great leaps over streets and rooftops.

Somewhere along the way, Spring-Heeled Jack gained cult hero status. He appeared in the small theaters of the day, portrayed as a cloaked figure with shiny boots and huge whiskers. He became a star of the cheap weekly periodicals, whose sensationalism amused the working-class. One such saga, Spring Heeled Jack, The Terror of London, by George Augustus Sala, appeared in 48 weekly parts. Mr. Sala’s protean Spring-Heeled Jack reflected the proletarian ethos of the serial’s readers, becoming a superhero who rescued damsels in distress and persecuted those in authority who abused their power. In 1904 the character was revived in another penny-serial novel, The Spring-heeled Jack Library. And in 1946 a film was made about him, The Curse of the Wraydons.

Apparently tiring of the temperate English climate, Spring-Heeled Jack made dozens of appearances in the United States between 1938 and 1945, belching flames and making gigantic leaps, then melting into the darkness. In the 1970’s, perhaps benefiting from the introduction of commercial supersonic flight, he appeared in both the U.S. and the U.K., sporting long hair and minus the cloak – apparently, fashion sense and mayhem are not mutually exclusive. In 1976, at least a dozen residents of Dallas, Texas claim to have seen a ten-foot-tall, thin creature with long ears leap across a football field in a few strides.

Little has been heard about Spring-Heeled Jack since then. Theories abound as to the origin of this urban legend with the bizarre appearance – an alien, a demon, mass hysteria, overheated imaginations. As for me, I prefer to treat the tale with a healthy measure of skepticism, and one eye very wide open.

How To Handle Reactions To Bad News

February 20, 2011

A self-help guide for developing strategies to deliver stuff nobody wants to hear.

Breaking Bad News

No one likes to break bad news, and though you may not be able to give the news gently, you can still be sensitive or, failing that, you can yuk it up. In any event, avoid euphemisms, such as “He’s past suffering now,” when you really mean, “About time he’s gone.” Remember that silence is a powerful tool, but long silences may cause the aggrieved party to start humming.

Now, let’s start by identifying the person who receives the bad news as the aggrieved party or aggrieved, for short, and the person who bears the bad news will be known as you. And while the one who delivers the bad news may well be viewed as bad news, it is important to remember that this is a normal reaction, and not an entirely accurate description of you.

When delivering bad news, give the information clearly, in manageable chunks and in response to the aggrieved’s questions. If the content is dire, make the seriousness of this clear by wearing all black and carrying a trident. Observe the aggrieved’s reactions – if he (yes, to include she) loses consciousness, this is an indication that the aggrieved has heard enough.

Before starting to communicate any bad news, plan what will be discussed.

• First, confirm that the news is indeed bad. No sense wasting effort on someone who’ll get over it by lunchtime.

• Try to create an environment in which the aggrieved is comfortable. Candles, incense and peppermint are a good start; sing-a-longs are generally discouraged.

• Ensure privacy and openness; keep a box of tissues handy. Consider that a desk between you and the aggrieved will only serve to act as a barrier – unless of course he has a knife, in which case those tissues will come in handy stemming the blood flow until an ambulance arrives.

• Negotiate the time you have for the aggrieved. It will help them to know that you are allowing adequate time, but check your watch frequently to remind them that they’re on the clock.

• Ask the aggrieved whom, if anyone, they would like to have with them. This need not be a next of kin, but you should stop short of allowing anyone who has recently passed on.

• If the aggrieved is under 16 years of age, keep the door open.

The Element Of Shock

Remember: Bad news will cause a shock reaction, even if it is expected. Before disclosing their reactions, fears and worries, the aggrieved should be allowed to sit quietly, preferably without any sharp objects nearby.

There is always an element of shock when bad news is put into words and reality sets in. During this time, the aggrieved is unlikely to retain any further information or even hear what is said. At times such as these, when words become meaningless, consider bringing in a mime.

In a busy environment, it may be difficult to give enough time to someone who seems unable to grasp the situation. Understand your limitations and suggest that the aggrieved sit outside and cool his heels until you can find someone dumb enough to take your place.

Sometimes it is difficult to gauge the aggrieved’s reactions. His words might indicate acceptance of a situation, but his body language may suggest something quite different. To assess the situation properly, it is useful to tell the aggrieved how you are interpreting his reaction. For instance, you might say, “You say that you understand, but you look a bit puzzled to me.” This allows the aggrieved time to reconsider the propriety of actually shooting the messenger, while affording you an extra moment or two to reflect on the fine art of groveling.

Keep in mind that the more information you give at any one time, the less will be remembered. Start with the salient facts, and only move on when the aggrieved has actually come back from the bathroom.

Learn to listen attentively and acknowledge the aggrieved’s reactions. For example, practice nodding in a mirror; keep a slice of onion in your shirt pocket – when an empathetic response is required, lean your head forward and inhale deeply. He will think you are sighing, and the resulting copious flow of tears will earn you much-needed brownie points.

Use open-ended questions and statements to encourage the aggrieved to disclose his feelings, worries and concerns. For example:

• This must be difficult for you; it certainly is for me.

• I can see that you are angry, and I guess I would be too in this situation, though I might not try to stomp on your neck.

• You seem frightened to me. Are you frightened? Are you really frightened? You want me to give you something to be frightened about?

• Hey, how about those Knicks?

When The Aggrieved Party Is A Patient

When bad news is due to a medical condition, most people will have some idea what their symptoms mean. Others may have received some previous information; it may even have been about you. If this is the case, and the possibility exists that there is damaging photographic evidence, it is important to establish exactly what the patient knows or suspects before dispensing any helpful advice.

Questions might include:

• How would you describe me to a sketch artist?

• Ever wonder what you’d look like on the side of a milk carton?

• You wouldn’t happen to know a good lawyer, would you?

• So, how about those Knicks?

Occasionally the recipient of bad news will fall silent and seem completely unprepared or unable to respond. It may be helpful here to acknowledge his silence with a response like, “Say something, for crying out loud!” Give the patient some time before speaking (or yelling) again, and if he still does not respond, offer to meet him again at Le Cirque or Peter Luger’s Steak House, with the provision that he pick up the check.

It is important to give information at the patient’s pace; this may mean that he will not receive all the information at the same time. He is more likely to accurately absorb the message if it is given in manageable chunks. You will know when the patient has heard enough when he either changes the subject or falls asleep. He may ask you not to go on, giving reasons such as “I don’t understand all this,” or “All I’m interested in is the money; read the will.”

Only give information to someone other than the patient when:

a) the patient cannot pay,


b) the patient can pay but needs a translator.

If the bad news is about diagnosis and treatment, there is generally time to prepare in advance. Further questions from the patient, however, may contain the propensity for more bad news, for which you have had no time to prepare. In such a situation where you do not know the answer, make it up, or offer to refer the question to someone more appropriate, preferably someone more adept at lying.

Addressing The Future

Lastly, when you are sure that the bad news has been absorbed and first reactions have been addressed, it is important to consider the future.

If the bad news has been broken in public, it is important that neither of you be standing near a major body of water, as some aggrieved who consider shedding this mortal coil often look to take a buddy with them. If the aggrieved appears very distressed, it could help for you to run, as being chased is likely to call the attention of the proper authorities to your plight.

Remember, if the aggrieved is also a patient, he may ask questions about treatment, prognosis and other aspects of his future. If the diagnosis is terminal, this could mean more bad news, especially for you. Offer him inappropriate reassurance in order to maintain hope, both his and yours. Encourage him to set unrealistic goals for the future, but avoid expressions such as “What you need to do is…” and instead, offer to finish his dessert for him.

Finally, you may want to address specific issues with the aggrieved, such as not extending his cellphone contract. Remember, what’s left of his future is in your hands.

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