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

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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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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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