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80 Years Ago: Alcatraz Takes In First Group of No Good Thugs

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:25 AM EDT
Group portrait of the Alcatraz Guards and Officials in front of the Administration Building. In the center with the light hat is Warden Johnston. Second to the right of Johnston is Capt. Henry Weinhold. c1930s. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Weinhold Family Alcatraz Photograph Collection

On August 11, 1934, Alcatraz accepted 14 federal prisoners, considered to be the grand opening the Rock. Of course, once you dig a little deeper, you learn that there were already prisoners on the island when those 14 inmated arrived on armored railcars (via ferry). But history is filled with asterisks, right? Alcatraz had long been used as a military prison, going back to the Civil War. On August 11th, a few military prisoners still serving out their terms were on the island to welcome their new Rockmates.

The new federal inmates were all transferred from McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. They were joined by 53 more inmates on August 22nd. Alcatraz remained open as a Federal Penitentiary until March 1963 and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions on the West Coast.

Because there are so many great photos of Alcatraz, we're going to stretch our legs a bit today.

Main Cell Block Guard Carl T. Perrin, March 21, 1963. Keith Dennison/Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives
 
Alcatraz guards at the sallyport, c. 1939-1962. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Carl Sundstrom Alacatraz Photograph Collection
 
View of the original control center at Alcatraz Federal Prison. Taken during the World War II period as can be seen by the war bond poster on the wall behind the gentleman. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, McPherson/Weed Family Alcatraz Papers
 
Alcatraz mess hall and kitchen with Christmas menu, date unknown. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Sheppard Alcatraz Collection
 
Alcatraz inmates playing dominoes and baseball in the recreation yard, c1935-1960. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Betty Waller Collection
 
Alcatraz inmates arriving at the main cell house, c1960. Leg irons and handcuffs can be seen on most of the inmates. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives, Marc Fischetti Collection
 
Construction of Alcatraz 1890-1914 Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives
 
Press Photo from the 1962 Alcatraz escape, June 1962. View from the west side building diagram directions. Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives

 

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A New Album From Elvis? Sort of.

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Elvis Presley
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Deluxe Edition)
RCA/Legacy

Elvis That's The Way It Is

How many versions of Elvis singing Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" would you like to hear? Is eight enough? That's what you get on this mammoth eight-CD (plus two-DVD) set. Revisiting one of the true high points of his career, Elvis: That's the Way It Is (Deluxe Edition) chronicles his summer 1970 run of shows in Las Vegas, when The King was in undeniably fine voice and great spirits. Contents include the original album of the same name, six complete shows (with not-quite-identical set lists), a fun disc of rehearsals, and, on the DVD side, the original theatrical release of the film chronicling the shows, as well as the special edition from 2001. Yes, it's overkill, but also surprisingly, compulsively entertaining—assuming already you're a fan. Encompassing the rollicking rock of his youth and the grandiosity of his grown-up self, Elvis would never sound this great again, whether belting out "Hound Dog" or getting convincingly angsty on a latter-day gem like the soaring "Suspicious Minds." If it becomes disconcerting to hear him cover other people's hits (for example, Neil Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline"), or indulge in corn like "The Wonder of You," or break the mood with dopey wisecracks, ultimately Elvis's obvious delight in being onstage transcends any shortcomings in the repertoire. Binge-listening is permitted.
 

Book Review: "Excellent Sheep"

Mon Aug. 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Excellent Sheep

By William Deresiewicz

FREE PRESS

Something is rotten in higher education, William Deresiewicz writes in Excellent Sheep, as promising students, driven by an almost neurotic need for overachievement, are caught up in an escalating race. Deresiewicz, a former Yale prof, argues that America's top institutions have become career mills that funnel privileged kids into a narrow selection of professions—namely consulting and finance (and more recently, tech). Many end up unfulfilled, anxious, depressed, and fearful of failure, he notes, citing reports from a Stanford mental-health task force and the American Psychological Association. While it's largely anecdotal, the book still makes a pretty good case that these colleges are failing in their most essential mission: to help kids "build a self."

Video: "Holy Shit!" Freak Weather Event Stuns Brooklyn's Hipster Beach

| Sun Aug. 10, 2014 5:12 PM EDT

The weekend peace and quiet of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York—sometimes dubbed the "hipster beach" by locals—was shattered on Sunday afternoon​ by a strange, towering meteorological visitor. And also by the howls of my friend Michael Gambale, who took this video, yelling like the world was fast coming to an end. "It was amazing," he said. "I had my 'oh shit, a double rainbow' moment."​

The spiraling, orange tunnel-like phenomenon appears to be a textbook specimen of a "dust devil", which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration​ definition, is a "small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt or debris it picks up." It's not a tornado, which is much more powerful and connected to a cloud, and certainly not as dangerous (though in 1992, an Alburquerque dust devil produced 70 mph winds, equivalent to a typical severe thunderstorm.) Instead, according to NASA, "a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right." And they were.

According to Gambale, who was relaxing in the park with friends, it lasted about a minute, leaving some locals "perplexed", and others filled with a sense of adventure: "Some dude ran into it, that's why I said don't run into it," Gambale added. "And he did! He just got all dusty. It wasn't that strong obviously."

But don't diss the dust devil by calling it weak or short-lived: "It's a dirtbag hipster tornado and it's Brooklyn's."

The only other reference I could find to "twister" in McCarren park was of a very different kind: Mass "Twister" performed by a marauding group of Santas for 2009's Santacon. I like this one much better.

See? Everything exciting happens in Brooklyn.

6 Dumb Things Dan Snyder Has Said About the Name of His Football Team

| Sat Aug. 9, 2014 6:21 AM EDT

A year ago, I explained Mother Jones' decision to stop using the name of Washington, DC's pro football team, both online and in print. We joined Slate and The New Republic in doing so, and since then, a number of other news organizations and journalists have followed suit.

Even as more people have spoken out against the team's derogatory moniker—everyone from President Obama to Gene Simmons—owner Dan Snyder hasn't given an inch, repeatedly arguing that it's simply not offensive. This week he even went on a mini media tour, giving radio and TV interviews as NFL training camps kicked into gear.

In the meantime, Snyder has doubled down on his commitment to keeping the R-word. Here's a list of some of the dumbest things he's said about it in the last year (as well as some additional reading, for context):

"It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect—the same values we know guide Native Americans."

In an October letter to season ticket holders: "The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor…It is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect—the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans."
(See also: "Often Contemptuous" and "Usually Offensive": 120 Years of Defining "Redskin")

In a March letter to season ticket holders, following months of criticism (including this Super Bowl ad): "I've been encouraged by the thousands of fans across the country who support keeping the Redskins tradition alive. Most—by overwhelming majorities—find our name to be rooted in pride for our shared heritage and values."
(See also: "Dan Snyder to Native Americans: We're Cool, Right? Native Americans to Dan Snyder: [Redacted]")

Following an April ceremony at a Virginia high school: "We understand the issues out there, and we're not an issue. The real issues are real-life issues, real-life needs, and I think it's time that people focus on reality."
(See also: "Washington NFL Team's New Native American Foundation Is Already Off to a Great Start")

In a Monday interview with former Washington player Chris Cooley on ESPN 980, the radio station Snyder owns: "It's sort of fun to talk about the name of our football team because it gets some attention for some of the people that write about it, that need clicks. But the reality is no one ever talks about what's going on on reservations."
(See also: "Outrage in Indian Country As Redskins Owner Announces Foundation")

"A Redskin is a football player. A Redskin is our fans. The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride."

More from the Cooley interview: "It's honor, it's respect, it's pride, and I think that every player here sees it, feels it. Every alumni feels it. It's a wonderful thing. It's a historical thing. This is a very historical franchise…I think it would be nice if, and forget the media from that perspective, but really focus on the fact that—the facts, the history, the truth, the tradition."
(See also: "Former Redskins Player Jason Taylor Says Redskins Name Is Offensive")

In a Tuesday interview with ESPN's Outside the Lines: "A Redskin is a football player. A Redskin is our fans. The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride. Hopefully winning. And, and, it, it's a positive. Taken out of context, you can take things out of context all over the place. But in this particular case, it is what it is. It's very obvious…We sing 'Hail to the Redskins.' We don't say hurt anybody. We say, 'Hail to the Redskins. Braves on the warpath. Fight for old DC.' We only sing it when we score touchdowns. That's the problem, because last season we didn't sing it quite enough as we would've liked to."
(See also: "Timeline: A Century of Racist Sports Team Names")

The Majesty of the Law, Rare Wine Edition

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:32 PM EDT

Rudy Kurniawan is a rare wine dealer who was convicted of defrauding his billionaire clients by pouring cheap wine into faked-up bottles and pawning them off as rare vintages. Yesterday he was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite his attorney's plea for leniency:

“Nobody died,” Mr. Mooney said. “Nobody lost their job. Nobody lost their savings.”

Judge Richard M. Berman interrupted him to ask, “Is the principle that if you’re rich, then the person who did the defrauding shouldn’t be punished?”

Stanley J. Okula Jr., a federal prosecutor, said it was “quite shocking” that Mr. Mooney was arguing for a different standard for those who have defrauded rich people. “Fraud is fraud,” he said. “There is no distinction in the guidelines, or in logic, for treating it differently.”

Quite right. As we all know, the law treats the rich and the poor equally. And the rich especially equally.

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Shorter Trees Could Make Peaches Cheaper

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 7:18 PM EDT
Millions of peaches, peaches for me.

When it comes to peach and nectarine trees, bigger isn't necessarily better. An orchard worker can spend as much as half of his or her day lugging around the ladders required to reach the branches of a typical 13-foot tree. Plus, the danger of climbing the ladders drives up the cost of workers' compensation insurance—growers of peaches and nectarines pay about 40 percent more for it than growers of low-lying fruit like grapes.

Now scientists at the University of California are trying to shrink the cost of labor on peach and nectarine farms by shrinking the plants themselves. In a 4-acre orchard south of Fresno, researchers are growing trees that they expect to max out at seven or eight feet. They say the shorter trees, which would not require a ladder to harvest or prune, could cut down on worker injuries and slash labor costs by more than 50 percent. If cultivated correctly, the mini-trees could be as fruitful as their taller counterparts.

If the experimental orchard works, it could have environmental perks too. In comments to UC Davis, one farmer estimated it costs him $1,400 an acre to thin his 250-acre peach and nectarine farm. Because of the high cost of ladders, many of his fellow growers are switching to almonds, he said. And almonds, as we've said before, are sucking California dry.

Fly Through Pyongyang With This Gorgeous Timelapse Video

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 5:35 PM EDT

Enter Pyongyang from JT Singh on Vimeo.

Timelapse videos of mega-cities like New York have become something of a viral video cliché in recent years. (If you're anything like me, you lap them up without shame, all the same). But I bet you've never seen the capital of the world's most reclusive nation, North Korea, quite like this before. The filmmakers—JT Singh and Rob Whitworth—spent six days in Pyongyang filming this video that delivers you right into the very-human nitty gritty of a place that looks far less creepy than those "Mass Games" videos would lead you to believe.

Even so, how much can we rely on this portrait for an accurate take on North Korea as a whole? Not a lot: the capital is home to the ruling elite, and used by the regime as a showcase city; people here are hardly representative. For example, 16 million of North Korea's 24 million people suffer from critical food insecurity, relying only on state-rationed food, according to the UN; one out of every three children is too short for his or her age. Hunger, poverty, lack of electricity, brutal repression and political reprisals... you name it: A UN special inquiry recently described North Korea's human rights violations as without "parallel in the contemporary world."

It's also true that the video is effectively an advertisement for a company operating out of Beijing called Koryo Tours, which has run tours into North Korea since 1993; the group covered the filmmakers' travel expenses. (Full disclosure: I'm pals with Vicky Mohieddeen, who accompanied the film crew, and works for Koryo).

But I think it adds vital perspective to a place shut away from the world by its repressive government. It's oh-so-interesting taking a look inside.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

Last week you could barely see Domino's face, so this week we get a close-up. Here she is outside in the summer sun enjoying a chin smooch from Marian.

In other cat news, click here to read about Coco, the lovely Siamese Wi-Fi sniffing cat from Virginia. If I tried this with Domino, she would sniff out my Wi-Fi and....that's about it. She doesn't roam much, and these days even less than usual. I don't think she's ventured more than ten feet from a doorway in years.

Tennessee Gubernatorial Nominee Explains Why He Wants to Send Governor to Electric Chair

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 2:27 PM EDT
Charlie Brown for Governor

They did it again. On Thursday, Tennessee Democrats picked a statewide candidate with zero political experience. His campaign platform is based on sending incumbent Gov. Bill Haslam (R) to the electric chair. Charlie Brown, a retired engineer from Oakdale whose name is misspelled on his own Facebook page, may owe his victory in the gubernatorial primary to appearing as the first name on the ballot. But he gives full credit to God. "I got down on my knees and prayed about it," he told Mother Jones, when asked about his campaign strategy. "That hit you pretty hard, huh? That took you for a loop, huh?"

In 2012, anti-gay activist Mark Clayton, who also had no political track record won the nod to take on GOP Sen. Bob Corker. His name was also the first name listed on the ballot. Clayton initially filed to run against Haslam this year but was rejected by the state party. The state party did not, however, unite behind a more experienced candidate to challenge the popular Haslam.

The 72-year-old Brown did not raise money or campaign actively for the seat. Instead, he sent two letters to the editor to every major newspaper in the state, outlining his plans for Tennessee, which included bringing back teacher tenure, restoring benefits for civil servants, spending his gubernatorial salary on large deer for hunters, and raising speed limits on the interstate highways to 80 mph "because everyone does anyway." (Brown says he has been pulled over for speeding, but "not lately.") "Let me give you something: My main interest is to put the Bible back in school," he said on Friday. "You can write that down."

"I'd still like to put his butt in that electric chair and turn it on about half throttle and let him smell a little bit," Brown said of Haslam. "You can print that if you want to."

Shortly before the election, he says a higher power intervened on his behalf. "I was sitting on the interstate waiting on a guy," he said, "and something hit me just like that, and it said to get down on your knees to pray. I got down right there on the interstate. There's a wide place, where there's a pullout. There wasn't anybody there. And I got down and asked the Lord to get me through this thing and he did. Now listen, I'm not no preacher, I'm just a Christian. I'm just a sinner saved by grace. I'm just like everybody else."

Brown said he would update his Facebook after he got off the phone (it has since been taken down), and plans to campaign more actively in the fall, but downplays the uphill challenge he faces.

"I'm gonna campaign big time!" Brown said. "They said I was unknown—I've been in the newspaper for years under Peanuts!"