May 27, 2003

Escape To Alcatraz

My dad left late last week after a weeklong visit. He spent the first few days shivering in San Francisco, but by Friday the weather warmed up some and I took a day off from work to go to Alcatraz with him. Neither of us had been there, and this seemed like a good time to go (decent weather and not too many tourists yet.) It was definitely prison-like, except much more run-down then you'd see in a movie (or real life I suppose, although I wouldn't know.)

alcatraz island

For those of you who don't know, Alcatraz was a federal prison located on a small island in San Francisco Bay. It's windy, cold, and very desolate. And, since it hasn't been a prison in decades, it's very run-down, too.

The main building, the one that held prisoners, is still in decent shape, but many of the other buildings, like housing for the guards and their families, is either gone or in such delapidated condition that you can't go inside. We rented the audio tour, which focused exclusively on the main prison building. Most of the cells on the ground floor are "decorated" as they would have been 50 years ago. This consisted of a bed, fold down chair and table, toilet, sink, and a few ammenities like toilet paper and shaving brush. Each cell also had piped in radio that inmates could listen to with special headphones.

alcatraz cell

There were several small gift shops on the island, where I bought the "Alcatraz Women's Club Cookbook." I picked it up thinking it was a joke, but it is a reprint of a 1952 cookbook. Apparently the guards and other workers and their families lived on the island full-time, and had social clubs and regular community activities. I had always assumed the guards commuted in from the City daily. The cookbook isn't anything special, just typical recipes you'd find in a 1950s church cookbook, but the title is fun.

guard house

We headed home on the next-to-last ferry back to the City, with the hopes of taking a cable car to downtown. The line was long, so we found a bus that eventually got us to the Caltrain station (via the longest and most un-scenic route in San Francisco it seemed.) We took Caltrain to Palo Alto and walked to Crystal Dynamics, where Gary works, and he drove us home.

As a day-trip for someone who has seen most of the City, Alcatraz is a lot of fun. If you've never been to San Francisco before and only have a few days, I'd skip it, and instead just buy the t-shirt proclaiming you had recently escaped.

Posted by Jen at 07:29 AM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2003

Chess Mistress

Gary and I started playing chess again last weekend. I say again only because Gary used to play a lot when he was in school; he taught me the basics a few years ago, but I never played that much. Anyway, some how we got it in our heads that it would be fun to play chess, so we bought a $5 chess set at the toy store last weekend.

I vaguely remembered the rules; I remembered how each piece moves, but that's about it. Gary is an excellent teacher. After a quick review of how to set the pieces up and move them, we played a game. I beat him! Of course, I should mention that he started with a handicap (no queen) and he helped me develop the strategy.

When he taught me a few years ago he bought a massive book of chess puzzles. It has every known mate-in-one and mate-in-two position, so supposedly if you solve all the puzzles (there are several thousand of them) you've seen it all, as far as end-games are concerned anyway. I think I've solved about 30 so far. Unfortunately it's a big book, so you can't carry it around with you and solve a puzzle or two while waiting on line at the grocery or bank. Well...I guess you could, but you'd probably gain more in upper-body strength than mental acuity.

Encouraged by my interest, Gary started doing research into computer chess games and elegant chess sets (we're not above playing with the $5 set--which also included checkers and backgammon--but it's not as nice to offer guests as an elegant wooden set.) He already had a copy of Chessmaster 8000, which he installed on his computer, but not mine (wrong OS...the only thing that is wrong is the sound, which really isn't a big deal to me, but the game refuses to start because of that.) Personally, I am not a big Chessmaster fan. They have ok tutorials, although some are confusing and given in the wrong order, and they have a terrible collection of chess pieces to choose from. There are some for which I couldn't tell the difference between a pawn and a bishop (bad) or the king and the queen (very bad!) He ordered a program called Fritz, which is supposed to be a lot better, but I don't know what its tutorials are like. Fritz doesn't arrive until next week, so I've been playing with Chessmaster on and off this weekend.

Chessmaster allows you to play games against ranked opponents. This sounds intimidating until you realize that the lowest human ranked player is a little girl (ranking of around 25) and the lowest ranked player in the game is a chimp who moves his pieces randomly (ranking of 1.) I beat the chimp, although not as easily as I thought I would. And I beat the little girl two games out of three (but Gary helped me with one of those wins.) Gary and I teamed played against the little girl a few times (we alternated taking turns) and beat her badly. While Gary is a much better player than I am, occassionally I'll see a move that he doesn't.

You're probably wondering why we don't just play against each other; after all, we have a perfectly serviceable $5 chess set. We're both sick; Gary is recovering from a bad cold, and I just started getting one Friday night. So, we haven't quite felt up to the challenge of playing against each other. And there's a certain amusing sastifaction that comes from beating a little girl in chess.

Posted by Jen at 08:51 AM | Comments (0)