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When His Project Was Canceled, an Unemployed Programmer Kept Sneaking Into Apple to Finish the Job

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Getty Images

by Julia Dahl

When an Apple programmer’s project got canceled, he didn’t despair. He just kept sneaking into the office until the program was finished.

Ron Avitzur knew his project was doomed. By the time his bosses cut the cord in August 1993, his team was actually relieved. The graphing calculator program they’d been working on for new mobile devices had finally been shelved, and they could all move on.

Most of his fellow programmers were reassigned to other projects within Apple. The company offered Avitzur a job, too, but it didn’t interest him. Avitzur, then 27, had been freelancing at tech companies since he was a student at Stanford—to him, the work wasn’t worth it if it wasn’t interesting. And what interested him was finishing the graphing calculator program that had just been canceled. But his ambitions were greater than that—Avitzur wanted to make the graphing calculator work on the new PowerPC computer that Apple planned to ship in early 1994.

The young programmer knew the project had merit. Everyone he mentioned it to exclaimed, “I wish I’d had that in school!” If he could just get the program preinstalled on the new computer, teachers across the country could use the tool as an animated blackboard, providing visuals for abstract concepts. The program could simultaneously showcase the speed of the new machine and revolutionize math class. All he needed was access to Apple’s machines and some time.

The Perfect Crime

In 1993, Avitzur had nothing but time. His girlfriend lived in another city, and he’d already spent the previous 18 months working late five or six days a week, sometimes until after midnight. His Apple gig had paid well, and Avitzur lived simply. He could work for almost a year without a paycheck. Plus, Apple had lots of extra offices and computers— who would it hurt if he just kept coming in? It would be the perfect crime.

On the last day of the canceled project, Avitzur’s manager called him into her office to say goodbye. He hadn’t completed the length of his contract, but the company would pay it in full anyway.

“Just submit your final invoice for what’s left,” she told him. That’s when it clicked: If Avitzur didn’t submit the invoice, his contract stayed in the system. And if his contract stayed in the system, his ID badge would keep getting him in the front door.

So Avitzur told his boss that he’d find someone to supervise him while he completed the program. Great, his manager said. Good luck. On the first day Avitzur came to work without a job, everything was pretty much the same. He drove his 1987 Toyota Corolla from the room he rented on the edge of a nature reserve in Palo Alto and parked in the lot outside Infinite Loop, Apple’s fancy new headquarters. He swiped in, went to his old office, and resumed working on the calculator.

Right away, Avitzur found help. His friend Greg Robbins also had an Apple contract that was almost up, so Robbins told his boss he’d start reporting to Avitzur. Robbins wasn’t getting paid either, but it didn’t matter. For the two buddies, it was about the work and the challenge. Plus, it was kind of a kick.

Hiding in Plain Sight

They worked in tandem for about a month. Robbins, the perfectionist, spent days tweaking the grayscale of a single pixel. Avitzur, the big picture guy, was more social. He chatted with fellow engineers, soliciting advice and mulling solutions. Avitzur’s and Robbins’s presence was an open secret; people admired their passion and believed in the project.

Then Avitzur got careless. He told the story to the wrong person—a manager who had come to tell him he needed to move offices.

“You’ll have to leave the building immediately,” said the woman. “I’ll have your badges canceled tomorrow.”

That’s when the real sneaking around began. For the next two months, Avitzur had to find new ways of getting into the building. He kept his canceled badge around his neck and timed his arrival for when he knew there’d be crowds coming through the front door.

“Morning!” he’d say to someone he knew, then he’d follow them past security. Avitzur was a familiar face and still wore his badge, so he looked legit. But he had to keep the badge away from sensors, which would sound alarms.

Avitzur also kept a list of phone numbers of friendly programmers in his pocket. If he couldn’t sneak in the front door, he’d call someone to let him in a side entrance. Inside, he and Robbins set up shop in a couple of empty offices. Though only a few dozen of the new computers were available for testing, friends ensured that Robbins and Avitzur had two of them. And people began pitching in—quality assurance specialists who’d gotten wind of the project would show up to test the software; a 3-D graphics expert devoted his free weekends to perfecting the program.

Still, the threat of being caught was real. Avitzur became adept at slipping into bathrooms and turning quickly down halls when he saw people from the facilities department or the woman who’d canceled his badge walking his way. Yet somehow the work got done.

By November, Avitzur and Robbins were ready to demonstrate the calculator. Engineers who had assisted the pair spread word of the project to their managers, who called Avitzur and Robbins in for a demo. Avitzur was prepared for the worst—ready to be dismissed as a loose cannon who had spent the last three months trespassing—but the demo went perfectly. When the computer came out the next year, Avitzur and Robbins’s graphing calculator program was on it. It has been loaded on more than 20 million machines in the decades since.

“It’s amazing we got away with it,” says Avitzur, who is still designing software, still living in the Bay Area, and still driving his 1987 Corolla. “Even more amazing that we ended up producing something of value.”

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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