Thursday, June 23, 2011

Part 13 - “One of the 2 of the places to visit in the US”!

Self guided prison tour

I liked this audio system - it felt as if someone was just taking you along and in case you missed something you could always rewind and listen again. The history of this prison was quite interesting - there was a challenge thrown to design an ideal prison that led to this structure. There was the group that believed that a criminal can be reformed if he spends time alone pondering over life. So the prison was designed with this in mind but there is no proof as to whether the system was successful. In those days it was hard to figure if there were repeat prisoners because identification was just by visible marks and not by fingerprints. So someone who walked out might well have returned a week later under a different name and no one would have known.

The barbed wires were meant as a means of intimidation; so were the watch post like towers on the edges of the prison. The entire prison resembled a huge guarded fortress and just the look of it would make people feel that escape isn’t an option! Play on the mind!
A model prison!

The arrangement was such that you had lengthy corridors like spokes of a wheel. So the warden standing in the center, which was a circular room, can actually see till the end of each corridor without having to step into them. Each cell was a small room with a wooden door - not the grilled type that we see in movies these days; these doors prevented a prisoner from seeing anyone else! In fact they mentioned about a prisoner who stayed here 2 years for a minor offense - he spent 23 hours a day in his cell and the one hour when he stepped outside was with a hood on his face. The idea was solitary confinement - that’s what would make a person look at their inner self. Each cell had a bible. Food was given through an opening at the bottom of the door. Newly admitted inmates were hooded when they arrived so that they didn’t know the layout of the prison. 

This prison was in fact a model prison which inspired many others around the world - it was called the Pennsylvania system (Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania state); encouraging confinement and having the radial supervising system. The other system was the New York System where prisoners were asked to work together.

Charles Dickens visits US

Interesting concept - let a guy stay in solitary confinement to look at his inner self; the more he looked inside the greater the chance of reforming! He doesn’t have anything to do so he will reflect on the past and on his crime and regret it (hopefully). Easy to go mad as well I guess. In life sometimes when even one person avoids us we tend to feel isolated; just imagine spending everyday in a little room all alone. In fact Charles Dickens said that this was one of the two places to visit in your lifetime - the other was Niagara (those were the 2 places in his must-see list when he came to the US). He believed it was cruel and wrong to impose solitary confinement and tamper with the mysteries of the brain. He said it was immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.

With the arrangement here, the number of prisoners who could be accommodated was less - only one prisoner per cell and the number of cells in a spoke were limited. So it was obviously expensive to maintain and to increase the number of inmates that could be accommodated a new spoke developed had a two floor structure. As I stood inside one of the rooms; it was eerie to think how it would be with the door shut. Absolutely nothing inside - just a toilet with hardly any space. No TV, no paper and no one to talk to.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Part 12 - From colors to black and white!

The rest of the museum was more fun for children - there were plenty of slides and tubes filled with information for little kids. If it weren’t for the Da Vinci exhibition I don’t think this museum would have been that interesting for us. There was a planetarium show which we watched - that was pretty good and lengthy but being short of sleep I dozed off at a point where the narrator (recorded voice of Liam Neeson, the villain in Batman Begins and hero of Taken) was just repeating the same facts again and again. The show was about black holes and some of the scenes were quite impressive where you felt as if you really were sucked into a hole - but I felt the seats should have been positioned in such a way that you just look into the sky instead of looking straight ahead. This was the longest planetarium show I had watched - more than 20 minutes!
The pendulum
The museum had a huge Focault’s pendulum (in the middle with the staircase running around it) with plenty of pegs kept in a circular fashion on the surface at the bottom; as the pendulum moved, one peg would get tipped over. Focault’s pendulum was one of the first practical experiments to prove that the earth is rotating. The pendulum is setup such that it moves back and forth - it won’t twist and each swing would knock over a different peg - this wouldn’t be the case if the earth were stationary.
A nice website if you are interested in learning about the pendulum:
iPhone comes handy
We didn’t spend too long in the museum. Next up was the Eastern State Penitentiary. My friend pulled up our location on his iPhone in Google Maps - I was impressed; you could see in real time your location on the map; and as you walked, the blue balloon indicating the phone also moved. Kind of neat - and I guess it signals the end of paper maps. The area we headed towards seemed deserted even though it was a Saturday afternoon. Not much crowds and certainly didn’t feel like walking in the heart of Boston or New York city where there would always be a hustle and bustle. Maybe this area of Philadelphia wasn’t the main part of the city; right after the Metropolitan Museum of Art it got deserted - plenty of apartment buildings and residential areas. The best part was that you had a good amount of trees on the lanes between buildings and there were beautiful flowers blossoming.
“Hungry?”, my friend asked.
“It’s okay; if we see something on the way we’ll jump in.”
“I had a little snack when you were in the Da Vinci hall.”
“Oh; you came out pretty early then.”

Seeing the flowers my friend couldn't resist taking snaps - these are his and now you know the reason for the title of this post!

The prison
There was not one restaurant in sight and so we continued on. It didn’t take long to guess which building was the prison - the one with the huge wall! It certainly appeared to be a huge facility. A prison is called a Penitentiary (a correction facility). The entrance was unassuming - we paid for 2 tickets and the lady asked, “Would you like to have the guided tour?” Since it was free we opted for it. “It will start in about 20 minutes.”
We went up the stairs and then saw a few people walking around with audio sets - you had a choice; either go for the tour guided trip or you go for a self guided trip where you are given a headset. My friend said, “I think self guided is better - we can do it at our pace.”
We went back to the reception and got the audio set. It’s a nice little player with headphones and a little lcd display that shows the track number that is currently playing. There was a board when we came up the stairs that said “Press 1 for the audio tour.”
The prison walls were really high - and there appeared to be barbed wires on top; perhaps electrocuted as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Part 11 - "Have I done anything of worth?"

Unfortunately no photography was allowed inside the exhibition. But there was this weird couple that despite the warnings tried to take a few snaps. The security noticed on one instant and warned them politely. Some of Leonardo’s real notes were put up on exhibition - and there was one guy who tried to use his mobile as a mirror to see the writing laterally inverted; remember he wrote from right to left. Seeing him a few others also tried the same. Some might say Leonardo wrote in reverse to make his writing secretive but perhaps it was because he was left handed. Writing this way might just have been something very natural to him and he was never corrected because he didn’t have much formal education.
(this snap is the road leading to the Museum of Art - those of you who have seen Rocky will know this road; it's the one Sylvester Stallone runs on)

In the main hall they had these real models made based on the designs of Leonardo - they were full size models in fact and you could map the model to what he had sketched. There were posters explaining the working of the model and in some places there were touch screen LCDs as well; real huge LCDs. There is a collection of Leonardo’s scientific writings known as Codex Hammer which it has many of his sketches and observations. The Codex was renamed each time someone bought it.
Leonardo didn’t like war but back in those days with the amount of wars waged, the rulers of kingdoms wanted war machines. To me the most touching part was reading one of the lines that he had written, “Tell me, have I done anything of worth? Tell me if anything was ever done.”
Yeah, maybe he wrote it when he was in difficult times but it is amazing; a guy of that calibre wondering if he did anything of worth - and looking at the present day and the things we do, I wonder what he’d think if he were living a life like us.
Robots, paintings and a bridge
There were diagrams and explanation about his ideal city - a city that was never built. There was a life size model of his mechanical lion - a lion that would walk a few steps and then open its chest to reveal lilies. The beauty is that he was able to make such automated machines those days itself - 500 years back and all of it using gears and pulleys. Leonardo even created devices for stage plays to create dramatic effects.
In those days painters made their own paints and Leonardo experimented with the paints and surface on which he painted - this has led to some of his paintings flaking off and having to be reconstructed for preservation. From his notes you could see that he sketched a lot of what he observed - so even for the Last Supper painting, something that might seem trivial like the hand of Judas in the painting was actually sketched earlier in one of his books. He probably referred to these sketches when he did the actual painting. The exhibition didn’t have the real paintings but it had digital recreations of the them along with explanations - for instance in the Last Supper, you could pick each character and read the explanation of what art critics felt it was meant to symbolize.
Not all of his designs were built or used. He had a lot of designs on flying - but they said that many of them wouldn’t stay in the air for more than a few seconds. But then you have to think that the work he did was still fascinating because he did all this before there was electricity or motors.
My friend had finished a round of the exhibition before I had even completed 25% of it! He said he’ll wait outside near the reception area. I was lost fascinated looking at his notes which were available digitally - you could flip the writing and then get a translation as well. He had scribbled a lot of equations related to geometry beside his design sketches. Near the exit of the exhibition was a “do it yourself” area where you could create his self supporting bridge - a bridge that didn’t need anything extra to keep it up - that was also fascinating.

I felt this exhibition alone was worth the trip to Philadelphia.
Learn more about the genius here:

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Part 10 - Our weekend begins

On popular demand we shall cut short the length of the editions and post hopefully twice a week instead of once.

Wii through the night

At night, by coincidence while looking at some of the boxes in my friend’s place I learnt that he had Wii.

“Yeah, didn’t I tell you?”


Another friend had bought it and was yet to take it back.

“It’s late - you don’t want to sleep?”

“Nope - Wii first!”

I had always been fascinated by Nintendo’s Wii - a gaming console that you played by making actions rather than pressing buttons on a pad. After searching the boxes for a while we found the console and a couple of game CDs. I hooked it on to the large Sony TV he had in his room.

“There’s no charge in the hand

sets - you’ll have to charge it for a while.”

It was past 11 and I was not going to give up without playing for at least 5 mins.! I searched for the

charger and hooked it in.

My friend started picking things and was thinking over what to take for the weekend trip. After 5 minutes he said, “That should be enough - we can try one handset.”

And it worked - my friend went to bed and left me alone with the console. I started with tennis and after playing some 20 games I won my first point. The console picked up our movement fairly well but I wasn’t able to figure out how to hit the ball hard - so rallies lasted long and in the end the computer would win the point.

I realized the problem with Wii - you get exhausted after a while; but on Sony’s Playstation, which is like a traditional gaming console, you could play for hours at stretch and not get tired. I switched to the boxing game - this one you had to use two handsets and move your hands in boxing fashion. I found this a lot easier than tennis and I even won many matches. Each match I won made me push on for another game and yet another game and so on till it was 12:30! Finally by 1am I hit bed after brushing my teeth.

Destination Philadelphia

I hardly had 6 hours of sleep and after having cornflakes for breakfast, off we were to Philadelphia. It was drizzling - not a good sign and weather forecasts predicted a gloomy day as well.

"I hope it doesn’t get very heavy; then it is tough to drive.”

The problem on highways is that water spews from the wheels of the car in front onto your windscreen since everyone is going at high speeds.

Guided by the GPS we reached the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia - the problem was parking; we went around the Institute a couple of times and couldn’t find the parking! Finally we dropped the car in a garage type parking in a neighboring block. There was no rain but it was misty.

As we walked towards the Institute we saw the sign to the underground parking - too late. “Underground parking would have been safer.”

The very first sight was this huge statue of Benjamin Franklin sitting in an empty room that had quotations appearing on four panels around the room.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.”

“Genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

“Early to bed and early to rise makes man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

The Franklin Institute was abuzz with activity - plenty of people and kids in the reception area.

A glimpse of the genius

The main reason I had this place on our list was because of a special Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition. So that’s where we headed to first. There was a video running in the entrance to the exhibition where I stood to listen to the whole narration - it was interesting. Da Vinci never attended formal education; in fact he learnt to write the wrong way! He wrote from right to left - kind of like laterally inverted writing. And his masterpiece Mona Lisa was not done in a short span of time; not even within a year - it seems he worked on it for over twelve years, carrying it around with him as he travelled and making alterations to it to make it perfect - every masterpiece certainly has a lot of effort that has gone into it! He was not in favor of wars but created designs for a number of war equipment. It is mind boggling to consider what all he was - inventor, painter, anatomist, botanist, mathematician, scientist... the list goes on; a self educated genius.