Archive for November 2018


Fact and fiction on The Rock

San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, with more famous landmarks, scenic vistas, and other tourist attractions than you can shake a stick at. But during the years I lived there, the only times I seemed to experience any of these things for myself were when friends or family visited from out of town. That’s when we rode the cable cars, visited Fisherman’s Wharf, went see the Golden Gate Bridge, eat in Chinatown, checked out the museums, and so on. And when we did, we thought, “Wow, this is cool. What a great city we live in! We should do this more often.” And inevitably we didn’t…until the next visitor showed up.

One sight we rarely get excited about, though, was the one visitors invariably wanted to see: Alcatraz, the little island out in San Francisco Bay that was once a federal penitentiary. We’ve been there many times, and the novelty wore off after the first couple of visits. The first time I went there, I didn’t understand what the big deal was until I heard people talking about a movie called Escape from Alcatraz. It did seem interesting to visit the place where a movie had been set, even though I hadn’t seen the movie at that time. Once there, the tour guides regaled us with stories about notorious criminals who had served time at Alcatraz—again, I hadn’t heard of these people, but I took the guides’ word that they were infamous and that therefore it must be a great privilege to stand in their former cells. And frankly, it’s a good thing I did have those stories to help spark my interest, because when you get right down to it, Alcatraz is a thoroughly unpleasant place: cold, windy, dilapidated, and depressing. No wonder it loses its tourist appeal after a while.

Of course, this unpleasantness was not lost on the officials who decided to designate the island a prison in 1934. That, along with the site’s isolated, escape-resistant location made it the ideal home for some of the nation’s most dangerous and recalcitrant offenders until 1963.

As the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” And yet, I realize that there must be plenty of people in the rest of the world who still haven’t seen the movies, heard the stories, and endured one too many visits to the island nicknamed “The Rock” (yes, there was a movie by that name too), and that such people might still find Alcatraz a bit more interesting than I do. Rather than rehashing the entire history of Alcatraz, about which you can read any number of perfectly good accounts, I thought I’d share just a few of the most interesting things I’ve learned about Alcatraz:

  • The Name: The name Alcatraz is a shortened, anglicized form of the Spanish word for “pelicans.” A Spanish explorer named the island “Isla de los Alcatraces” (Island of the Pelicans) in 1775.
  • The Fort: The military began building a large fort on Alcatraz in 1853 to help defend the San Francisco Bay against invaders who might be attracted by the recently discovered gold deposits nearby. It went into operation in 1859. Less than two years later, the U.S. Civil War broke out, and Alcatraz was considered an important Union defense post against the Confederate army. Although a military base remained in use on the island until 1933, Alcatraz was never actually attacked. (For much of that time, the island served as a military prison more than as a defensive outpost.) The year after the military left, the Bureau of Prisons began using the island as a maximum-security prison. One of its first inmates was Al Capone.
  • The Birdman: Another legendary prisoner, Robert Stroud, was known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud had studied canaries while incarcerated at Leavenworth before being transferred to Alcatraz—and had even published a book on canary physiology and disease. But during his 17 years at Alcatraz, he was never permitted to study birds—making the nickname a misnomer. Nor was Stroud ever permitted to see the 1963 film Birdman of Alcatraz, for which actor Burt Lancaster won an Oscar.
  • The Escapes: Several prisoners did escape from Alcatraz—sort of. Two who made it off the island were later recaptured, and five others are unaccounted for. Because the waters of the San Francisco Bay are so cold and the currents so strong near the island, most people assume these prisoners drowned. However, the swim can be done successfully. In fact, hundreds of people do it every year as part of the annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Most of these participants, however, are wearing wetsuits!
  • The Indian Occupation: During the years between the prison’s closure in 1963 and the island’s reopening as a national park in 1972, Alcatraz was not entirely uninhabited. For 19 months from 1969 to 1971, up to 100 Native American protesters occupied the island in an attempt to force the government to declare it Indian property. They planned to establish a university, cultural center, and museum on the island. Although the occupation did not achieve those results, it did have the effect of raising public awareness and prompting the government to give greater recognition and autonomy to Native American tribes.

The sight of a deteriorating former prison facility in the Bay contrasts sharply with the nearby Golden Gate Bridge and scenic Angel Island, not to mention San Francisco’s famous skyline. Alcatraz is famous mainly for being famous, its harsh, decaying outline now perceived as beautiful by residents of the city where people once complained about having their Bay views marred by a prison. And that, I think, is the very most interesting thing about Alcatraz—its mysterious transformation from a place of pain to a place of pride.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 9, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A padlock sitting on a computer

Every November 30 since 1988 has been Computer Security Day. A good thing, too, considering the frequency and severity of computer-related crimes, breaches, hacks, and so on. And yet, somehow, most people do shockingly little to protect their digital devices and their data. (Pro tip: putting an open padlock on top of your laptop won’t help.) I’ve written kind of a lot about security-related issues, so allow me to help you celebrate Computer Security Day with some tips (and recommendations for some of my books):

  • Passwords: Always use long, random passwords, and never use the same one in more than one place. A password manager makes all of this painless. Pertinent books: Take Control of Your Passwords and, if you decide on 1Password as your password manager, Take Control of 1Password.

  • Backups: You should have multiple backups of everything on your computer—and update them every day. An online backup service makes this painless (is there an echo in here?). You can read my recommendations in this Wirecutter article. If you’re a Mac user, you’ll learn much more about backups in my book Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac.

  • Updates: Always keep up with software updates, which often contain bug fixes for security issues. I talk about software updates—and many other maintenance tasks—for Mac users in Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac.

  • Privacy: Security, privacy, and anonymity are all distinct but related. Good security can help to protect your privacy, and I give extensive advice on this topic in Take Control of Your Online Privacy, which is for users of any platform. (I also explain, in that book, how a bear can illustrate the differences among security, privacy, and anonymity!)

Let’s be safe out there!

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Le Pont d'Avignon

Miracle bridge to nowhere

On our first trip to France, way back when, Morgen and I spent about a week in Provence. There was no way we could see all the places that interested us in such a short period of time, so we had to settle for a few highlights. We were able to squeeze in just about half a day in the town of Avignon, and though it has immense historical significance, our main reason for visiting was a nursery song. Having grown up in the United States, I was familiar with French children’s tunes such as “Frère Jacques” and “Alouette,” but I’d never heard “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” which Morgen learned as a child in Canada. The song is all about people dancing on the Bridge of Avignon. It doesn’t mention the rather important fact that the bridge in question—which is probably the town’s most famous attraction—stops abruptly less than halfway across the Rhône river.

Rome if You Want To

Avignon rose to fame when, in 1309, Pope Clement V decided to move the official papal residence from Rome to Avignon—which was, at that time, on the outskirts of the Holy Roman Empire (and just across the Rhône from France). Seven popes called Avignon home until 1377, when the papacy officially returned to Rome. (From 1378 to 1417, leadership of the Catholic church was in dispute; two so-called antipopes, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, resided in Avignon during that period.) Later, after the French Revolution, Avignon would finally become part of France.

But long before the Church took an official interest in Avignon, it was already known as place of spiritual significance. According to legend, in the early 12th century, a young shepherd boy named Bénezet heard the voice of God commanding him to build a bridge spanning the river, and was guided by an angel to the designated location. The Avignon townsfolk were disinclined to attempt such an undertaking until Bénezet (as the story goes) picked up a huge stone and threw it into the river at the spot the angel had indicated—proving divine guidance.

Construction of a wooden bridge began in 1177 and ended in 1185, about a year after Bénezet’s death. The bridge became known officially as the Pont St-Bénezet (Saint Bénezet Bridge) in his honor. A small chapel honoring St. Nicholas (the patron saint of mariners) was constructed on the bridge itself—atop the first pier from the Avignon side that’s actually in the water. Bénezet’s remains were interred in the chapel.

Troubled Waters

Unfortunately, floods (and military sieges) frequently wiped out portions of the 900-meter (3,000-foot) bridge, which was rebuilt several times over the next five centuries or so—with stone being the building material of choice from the late 13th century onward. Even with its stone construction, however, the bridge continued to deteriorate. By the late 1660s, all attempts to rebuild it ceased, and today, only four of its 22 original arches are intact. Bénezet’s remains, which in the late 17th century had been swept away in yet another flood, were moved to another church. However, the small remaining portion of the bridge—which includes the chapel—has been restored and is in no immediate danger of disappearing.

The day we visited Avignon, a Renaissance festival was taking place in the Palace Square. Surrounded as we were by old stone walls and buildings, we could easily imagine that the town had looked just like this several centuries ago. (The hordes of tourists with cameras soon shattered that illusion, though.) In a surreal juxtaposition, the inside of the Palace of the Popes was full of scaffolding, video screens, cables, and other electronics, as a multimedia art display of some kind was being installed. Apparently, the only thing in the town that looked as it usually does was the bridge—and as I recall, just as we walked onto the bridge, it started to rain. That may have been why I did not get any good photographs of the Pont d’Avignon. Our visit to the town, like the bridge itself, ended too soon.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 8, 2005.

Image credit: Charles Greenhough [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Square dance group

If I’d woken up this morning, noticed that it’s National Square Dance Day, and been struck with an irresistible urge to go square dancing… I would probably be unable to fulfill that desire today. (For the avoidance of doubt, I was not struck with such an urge on this or any other morning.) Whatever great things one might say about square dancing, it’s not something you can just go do wherever and whenever you want to. You have to have enough people, the right sort of space, the right music, and—crucially, for American versions of square dancing—a caller. Those elements are hard to come by in my neck of the woods. Be that as it may, square dancing has always seemed like quite a production to me, and the couple of times I tried it, I found it to be terribly confusing and pretty much the opposite of fun. Far be it from me to dictate how you shake your groove thing, but as for me, I’ll be celebrating this important national holiday with other modalities of movement.

Image credit: Deirdre [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Potter's Wheel

The best thing until sliced bread

On occasion, you may have heard it said of some wonderful gadget, “This is the greatest invention since sliced bread!” Such a comment is intended to be both a compliment and a reference to how revolutionary and world-changing the invention is. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that while people have been slicing bread for eons, pre-sliced, packaged bread has been available only since 1928, when Otto Frederick Rohwedder introduced the world’s first mechanical bread slicer in Battle Creek, Michigan. I don’t know what revolutionary invention the bread-slicer was compared to when it first appeared, but sooner or later, it all goes back to the wheel. Nobody seems to be able to come up with an older, or more important, invention than that.

Giving It a Spin

Before I began my curatorial duties here at Interesting Thing of the Day, I had never really wondered when the wheel was invented, much less why it was invented. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Everyone knows the wheel was invented to enable people to move stuff around more easily—a revolutionary alternative (so to speak) to carrying, pushing, or dragging heavy objects. Surprisingly enough, some historians and archeologists aren’t so sure about that. There is in fact a fairly good case for the hypothesis that the wheel was invented to facilitate pottery making.

The wheel was almost certainly invented in Mesopotamia—present-day Iraq. Estimates on when this may have occurred range from 5500 to 3000 BCE The oldest wooden wheel discovered so far (in Slovenia, not in Mesopotamia) dates to about 3150 BCE, though for all anyone knows, wheels were already in use in various places for centuries by that point. But there is also evidence from the very same period of time that wheels were used for pottery.

Drinking and Driving

It was around 3000 BCE that the first goblets appeared. Clay goblets, along with bowls and other vessels, are normally made by throwing them on a wheel. This makes for a far smoother and more regular shape than could be achieved by manual coiling, and since the oldest surviving goblets bear the telltale signs of wheel manufacture, it is plausible that wheels were used for pottery before they were used for transportation.

If the wheel was indeed invented for the convenience of potters, the question then becomes how it came to be used for transportation; clearly, whichever use appeared first, the other quickly followed. To be honest—putting myself as best I can into the sandals of someone living many thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia—I probably never would have thought to turn a pottery wheel on its edge and put it under a box (or vice versa). But then, I’ve always had a knack for overlooking the obvious.

This story also has an interesting postscript. Some sources claim that prior to the invention of the pottery wheel, most pottery was primarily made by women, whereas afterward, it became a man’s job. Thus we can see that the stereotypical male trait of liking gadgets goes way back. I can just picture those prehistoric dudes standing around bragging about their new wheels and saying, “This is the greatest invention since fire!”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 26, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on December 30, 2004.

Image credit: Max Pixel

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day