Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Visiting with the National Geographic Society

December 9th, 2009 at 2:42 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

As part of our long weekend with the National Geographic Society from November 19-21, 2009, we had access to the behind-the-scenes activities that make NatGeo the amazing organization it is today.

The seal of the National Geographic Society

The seal of the National Geographic Society

On Friday, November 20th, after a breakfast where a number of senior members of the Society spoke, including the Society’s chairman, Gil Grosvenor, we were given a tour of the offices. The tour started with a look at what all goes into putting together a single issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the last several decades (in which case it’s unlikely you’re reading this blog in the first place), you are familiar with the magazine and its incredible stories and photos covering diverse topics about our planet – typically focusing on man’s interaction with nature and nature’s mysteries.

A statue of a primal woman at the offices of the National Geographic Society

A statue of a primal woman at the offices of the National Geographic Society

What sets National Geographic Magazine apart from any other publication is the phenomenal photography accompanying each article, the detailed and informative map inserts, the lack of advertising in the features section of the magazine, and the fact that the Society and the explorers they fund may invest months or years in just one article in order to produce definitive works of knowledge to share with the masses. The magazine’s audience appears to appreciate the effort – there are nearly seven million subscribers worldwide (around five million of those are in the U.S.). The magazine comes as part of membership in the National Geographic Society, which costs a mere $15 a year. I’m proud to say that I ponied up back in the 1990s and became a lifetime member of the Society back then.

Linda waits for a presentation about National Geographic Magazine

Linda waits for a presentation about National Geographic Magazine

During our tour, we got to see the various articles and photos which would go into the May 2010 issue of the magazine, as well as learn about the process of how stories are pitched and then researched. Many features are in the planning stages for months or even years. And the gorgeous photos in each monthly edition of the magazine don’t come cheap either. A typical photo shoot may take six to eight weeks, and result in 30,000 or more photos, of which only perhaps a dozen will appear in the magazine.

Each issue of the magazine is finalized and put to bed about two to three weeks before the publication month. For example, the Decemeber 2009 issue had been signed off on during the second week of November.

The editorial and production staff are typically working on several months worth of stories at any given time, and keeping all that straight requires excellent planning and organizational skills.

Our next stop after production was the cartographic department where the amazing National Geographic maps are developed and kept up to date. And keeping the maps up to date is a pretty intense process. An example given to us was a Eurasian lake that had been shrinking dramatically over the last decade, enough so as to require an edit of the core map data. The evidence of this geographical change came from a series of images taken by satellite over a long period of time (see image below).

Juan at the National Geographic Society explains how maps change over time

Juan at the National Geographic Society explains how maps change over time

Other map changes are political, as ever shifting country boundaries need to be reflected in maps. Also, we learned that China has been taking drastic steps to move large populations from the country to cities – so much so that they need to build a city the size of Philadelphia every two months (and apparently they are succeeding). However, this move of populations to urban areas in China and elsewhere results in smaller cities, towns, and villages becoming effectively uninhabitated, and as such needing to be removed from the massive GIS (Geographic Information System) the Society maintains to generate its maps from.

The National Geographic Society also does business with entities, such as tourism boards, which want localized maps created by the Society. After all, having “National Geographic Society” on a map lends it significant legitimacy. But that causes some interesting issues as well, including requirements that geography be renamed to meet local customs, or that bits of land be shown to be part of the client country instead of belonging to the country that might be occupying said bits of land. Likewise, oceans and seas we know by a particular name may go by a completely different name in other countries (even taking translations into account).

While we know cartography is complicated, we had never realized the nuances that existed with respect to particular audiences. In a way the situation is a variant of the saying “History is written by the victors”. Perhaps it’s “maps are determined by self-interest”.

To National Geographic’s credit, when changes which the Society’s cartographers believe to distort accepted practices and understanding are included in Society-produced maps, there is also a disclaimer added to such maps which explains the accepted standards versus what the map represents.

From cartography we moved to the CritterCam labs where technical geniuses continue to figure out ways to mount cameras to critters.

Some of you may know that I had, for about eight years, the distinction of running the world’s longest running underwater WebCam – the Bonaire ReefCam. While that was a technically challenging project due (and one I will resume shortly), we had the benefit of a fixed location for mounting the camera.

The guys at the National Geographic CritterCam Lab are continuously trying to figure out ways to place video cameras in places where they can be used to study animal behavior, and that typically involves attaching a camera to the animal in question. The cameras are self-contained and include things like GPS trackers so that the cameras can later be retrieved, and more importantly, the video footage they captured. For CritterCams which are used on aquatic creatures there’s also some special hardware which, after a preprogrammed time, will cause the camera housing to detach itself from the shark, whale, or penguin (among other critters) it was attached to and float to the water’s surface for retrieval.

We visit the CritterCam lab at the National Geographic Society

We visit the CritterCam lab at the National Geographic Society. Note the shark fin replica on the work bench. It's used for testing a dorsal clamp for a shark CritterCam.

While the CritterCams are not WebCams (yet), they can capture some absolutely incredible footage. While we were in the lab, we were shown footage captured when they managed to attach a camera to a Humboldt Squid, a creature that can grow to about six foot in length. They discovered that when the CritterCam emitted light that other squid attacked it, violently. So the next model did not emit a light.

After another few presentations we headed off for lunch, also set up by the National Geographic Society. We were treated to a visit to foreign soil as part of our lunch, as it took place in the Embassy of Afghanistan. Ambassador Jawad had been scheduled to greet us personally, but the somewhat sudden inauguration of Afghan president Hamid Karzai the day before required that he be in Kabul instead. We were instead received by the Ambassador’s assistant, and presented with a wonderful selection of Afghan cuisine for lunch.

We are offered a wonderful array of authentic Afghan dishes at the Embassy

We are offered a wonderful array of authentic Afghan dishes at the Embassy

Our lunch included a presentation by the Society’s archeaology fellow, Fred Hiebert, on the recovery of ancient Afghan treasures stashed away as the Taliban took power and brought back out after their defeat. Fred was personally involved in cataloging many of the ancient works, and then also curating the National Geographic’s exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum“.

Bob Ballard joins us in a family photo at the Embassy of Afghanistan

Bob Ballard joins us in a family photo at the Embassy of Afghanistan

One of our lunch companions was Bob Ballard, best known for the discoveries of the wrecks of the RMS Titantic, the battleship Bismarck, and the USS Yorktown.  But his ocean exploration extends far beyond those wrecks, sharing his works with students around the world with the JASON Project. He is also working on a a new project coming which involvse the use of Internet2 for global real time discovery and documentation of new underwater finds on his new research vessel. We had first met Bob in 1997, as Linda was pregnant with Bas, while working at the Boston Sea Rovers Clinic in Boston, and it was nice to get reacquainted.

Another presentation we attended at NatGeo HQ

Another presentation we attended at NatGeo HQ

We returned to NatGeo HQ after lunch for a few more presentations, including the one pictured above about Geo-Literacy, and a more in depth presentation by Bob Ballard about his new research and discoveries.

That evening our dinner was at the Cosmos Club, a private social club with close ties to the National Geographic Society – the Society’s founding members were also members of the Cosmos Club. The club’s membership includes numerous luminaries including Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel Laureates.

One of the halls at the Cosmos Club in D.C.

One of the halls at the Cosmos Club in D.C.

A comfortable looking club chair in the member library at the Cosmos Club

A comfortable looking club chair in the member library at the Cosmos Club

While the facilities were impressive and distinguished, I think I would find it difficult to be a member of any club with a strict dress code, as my normal daytime work attire consists of a t-shirt, shorts, and bare feet.

After dinner we watched several more presentations pertaining to the efforts of the Society, including discussions of social media, film, and exploration funding, and were then taken back to our hotel.

The following morning, Saturday, we hopped on a bus which took us out for a guided tour of the Manassas Battlefield in nearby Manassas, Virginia. Our guide, Craig, spent most of our bus ride to  Manassas explaining the events leading up to the secession of States from the Union and the subsequent U.S. Civil War. The first major battle of the Civil War was fought at Manassas in July 1861, and another important battle fought there again in August 1862.

An old farmhouse which played part in the Civil War battles in Manassas, Virgina

An old farmhouse which played part in the Civil War battles in Manassas, Virgina

Headstones for Ellen Morris, Judith Henry, and Hugh Henry at Manassas

Headstones for Ellen Morris, Judith Henry, and Hugh Henry at Manassas

Our tour guide, Craig, provides a description of the battles at Manassas

Our tour guide, Craig, provides a description of the battles at Manassas

Be careful or you'll shoot your eyes out with that cannon, Bas!

Be careful or you'll shoot your eyes out with that cannon, Bas!

Memorial to Stonewall Jackson, with lots of artistic license in terms of musculature for both Jackson and his horse

Memorial to Stonewall Jackson, with lots of artistic license in terms of musculature for both Jackson and his horse

After our tour of the Manassas battlefield we were taken to the home of Gil and Wiley Grosvenor. Gil is the chairman of the National Geographic Society and great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Gil and Wiley live in the Virginia countryside, about an hour or so outside Washington, D.C., on a beautiful farm.

A giant NatGeo map of Asia used for educating school children about geography

A giant NatGeo map of Asia used for educating school children about geography

As we arrived we were greeted by a huge National Geographic map of Asia which the Society uses as an educational tool for school kids. We were also treated to the music of Marie Miller and her fellow musicians as we explored Gil’s barn and land.

Krystyana uses a fisheye lens to snap a shot of her new equine friend

Krystyana uses a fisheye lens to snap a shot of her new equine friend

Horse face fisheye image by Krystyana

Horse face fisheye image by Krystyana

In the barn, in addition to being introduced to several breeds of horses (including ones we had never heard of), we were served a couple of delightful wines made in Virginia – not a place one normally expects to find as a producer of good wines. The vineyard responsible for the wines was Rappahannock Cellars, and the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc they served were very worthwhile. We also got to enjoy three more of their wines with our lunch. Sadly, Virginia has rules against shipping wines out of state so we were unable to order any to send home for later enjoyment.

Our fellow NatGeo Grosvenor Council members for a final farewall photo on the giant map

Our fellow NatGeo Grosvenor Council members for a final farewall photo on the giant map

After an enjoyable meal and some great conversation, we all gathered on the giant map for a group photo before heading back to D.C. for the night and dinner on our own (which I hope to document shortly).

Cool lighting and shadow as we leave Gil's farm in the Virginia countryside

Cool lighting and shadow as we leave Gil's farm in the Virginia countryside

Additional photos from these two days can be found here on Flickr.

 

Newseum, Terra Cotta Warriors, and Food in D.C.

November 20th, 2009 at 1:09 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our time here in Washington D.C. has been flying by quickly. Between museums, shopping, eating, and sleeping we have not had time for much else. Of course, there may not be much else we need time for.

I got a head start on the Newseum (day 2) yesterday morning, and by happy circumstance ended up meeting one of the technicians there who gave me an hour-long behind-the-scenes tour of the Newseum’s amazing electronic infrastructure. The Newseum prides itself on being the most interactive museum in Washington D.C., and the video and computer “farms” I saw attest to that. Thank you Mike! The family joined me after my serendipitous back stage tour, and I took the opportunity to ham it up in a fake newscast (see photo below).

Jake does the news report on the Woodstock presentation at the Newseum

Jake does the news report on the Woodstock presentation at the Newseum

After lunch at The Capital Grille next door and a few more exhibits at the Newseum the girls headed off for some shopping and Bas and I remained until closing time. We all met up at the National Portrait Gallery again, where we explored the Luce Foundation Center’s art archives.

The Luce Foundation Center at the National Portrait Gallery

The Luce Foundation Center archives at the National Portrait Gallery

Dinner was around the corner at Zaytinya, another of José Andrés‘ excellent restaurants. I’ll post more on that on A Foodie Moment in the next few days. We were joined there by old Richter family friends and virtual cousins Nell and Lauren Dennis.

Nell and Lauren at Zaytinya in D.C.

Nell and Lauren at Zaytinya in D.C.

Today was spent at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment as Krystyana’s current self-schooling interest is the field of crime scene investigation (CSI) and the museum has a pretty decent section on that topic as well as criminology in general. If you’re a crime buff or have a morbid interest in what sort of punishment was doled out for various crimes over the last millennium, this museum is for you.

Full Kee in D.C.'s Chinatown

Full Kee in D.C.'s Chinatown

We took time out for lunch in nearby Chinatown, at a Chinese restaurant a local friend had recommended – Full Kee. It offered a very diverse menu selection, including a number of Chinese dishes we had never seen stateside before (e.g. pork intestines and duck blood dishes), and the dishes we ordered were tasty and filling. I will note that I could not convince the rest of the family to try the more exotic dishes.

The highlight of the day, however, started in late afternoon when the real purpose of our trip to D.C. commenced.

We are here in Washington D.C. for something called the National Geographic Grosvenor Council Weekend, as the result of a donation we made to the National Geographic Society last year after spending a week on the National Geographic Polaris in the Galapagos.

The weekend is an event (for extra cost) set up to inform donors about the on-going activities of the National Geographic Society, and includes some additional and special events not available to the public at large.

The fossil skull of BoarCroc - Kaprosuchus saharicus

The fossil skull of BoarCroc - Kaprosuchus saharicus

The first of those events was a presentation by paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno about his recent discovery of three new species of crocodiles from the Cretaceous era at a couple of sites in the African Sahara, plus additional fossils from two more species. That discovery was publicly announced this morning. Paul explained how the fossils were found and how, based both on the fossilized bone structures as well as the physiology of modern day crocodilians, he discovered that these ancient species – dubbed BoarCroc (see skull above), PancakeCroc, DuckCroc, DogCroc, and RatCroc – had distinct capabilities, including rapid movement on land in the form of galloping. He supported his research with his observations of a galloping freshwater crocodile from Australia (the video of this was just too cool – unfortunately it’s not on-line, at least not that I can find).

The BoarCroc skull with with paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno

The BoarCroc skull with with paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno

After an extensive question and answer session, we moved to a reception where we got to say hi to National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle. With the various marine environmental and educational efforts Linda and I have been involved in over the last decade and a half we have met Sylvia several times – she’s a wonderful lady and pioneer in ocean exploration and conservation, and you may want to check out her new book, The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. It should also be noted that our home island of Bonaire recently honored Sylvia Earle with a lifetime achievement award when she was there this past summer for the Bonaire Dive Into Summer Festival.

Terra Cotta Warriors presentation at the National Geographic Society

Terra Cotta Warriors presentation at the National Geographic Society

Following the reception was a presentation on the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit which opened here at the National Geographic Society’s museum today. We were told that advance ticket sales to the exhibit as of early morning today were close to 106,000 – completely exceeding expectations, but a real delight to anyone supporting the noble goals of the National Geographic Society.

The Terra Cotta Warriors are part of a three and half decade excavation near the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China. They were created in clay by command of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to protect him in death, over 2,000 years ago, and only rediscovered in 1974 by local farmers. The terra cotta statues include archers, chariot drivers, soldiers, performers, armor, horses, and a variety of animal forms as well. And we have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors ever since we had first read about them in National Geographic Magazine decades ago.

So naturally we were delighted when our evening ended with a private tour of the Terra Cotta Warrior exhibit for our group of about 50 people. We were guided by a pair of doctoral candidates from George Washington University specializing in Chinese history. Alas, we were not permitted to take any photos, so there are none to share in this blog entry. That small disappointment aside, we’re pretty certain that all those people with advance tickets, as well as the thousands of others planning to attend will enjoy the exhibition, which contains the largest number of Terra Cotta Warriors to be seen anywhere outside of China. It also includes a variety of supporting artifacts, models, and explanations to help attendees get a better grasp of life during the Qin dynasty more than 2,000 years ago.

For us, if anything, the exhibit created an even greater yearning to visit Xi’an in person to see the huge excavations and the many thousands of warriors that have been painstakingly reassembled from a multitude of broken pieces. A visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the National Geographic Society is something we would highly recommend if you’re in Washington, D.C. in the coming months.

 

Lots of Miles, Lots of Countryside – Three Provinces, Three Days

October 17th, 2008 at 11:21 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

In case you might have been worried about us falling (or driving) off the face of the earth, rest assured that we’re alive and well and presently in the city of Moncton in New Brunswick.

We left Louisbourg on Cape Breton on Wednesday morning for Pictou in mid-Nova Scotia, intent on timing things well for the 4pm ferry to Prince Edward Island. We stopped off at Harbor Quilt Company, a quilting store and gallery outside of Antigonish, and then had lunch at Gabrieau’s Bistro in downtown Antigonish.

Gabrieau’s had an interesting looking menu, but the we found the service to be pretty terrible. Our waitress mis-heard a couple of our orders, and when asked about it, explained what she thought she heard and then left without offering to correct things. She was also quite slow and difficult to flag down. The food that we ended up with was also underwhelming. The spicy Thai beef salad used deli-style roast beef, which gave it an odd flavor. The Caesar dressing lacked any real flavor. The Asian baby back ribs and vegetable and chicken stifado were better though. And the two different cheesecakes we had were a disappointment too. We did note that a table with a different waitress appeared to have had a much better experience, but that was little comfort to us, and a different waitress would not have improved the food at all anyhow. So, if you’re tempted by Gabrieau’s when in Antigonish, contemplate your alternatives first.

One of the issues with the service at the restaurant was that we were now getting concerned about making the ferry, as time was starting to get a bit tight. Turns out to have not been an issue at all because I misread the ferry schedule, and the ferry left at 2:45pm (which we had, by then, missed), with the next one at 6pm.

To burn time, we ended up taking a leisurely stroll through picturesque Pictou (with the only thing marring the pretty harborside being a factory of some sort across the bay) and then had some tea before heading to the ferry terminal.

At the ferry terminal, while waiting for the ferry to arrive, we came across another rather distinct wild creature – a real, live fox. Turns out this fox has become an opportunistic feeder and waits for ferry travelers to toss it food scraps. The fox provided us with about 20 minutes of entertainment before it scooted away with the arrival of the ferry.

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

A fox at the Caribou Ferry Terminal near Pictou, Nova Scotia

An hour and a half later we were driving off the ferry in Wood’s Island, on Prince Edward Island on our way to the island’s largest city, Charlottetown, and also the most unique and attractive of all the various accommodations we have had so far on this trip.

We had booked two nights at The Great George, which is a collection of suites and buildings spread out over a block or two. The main reception area looks and feels just like one might picture a club room at a posh British gentleman’s club. The staff at the hotel was excellent and efficient, and within a short time had directed us to our lodging – a standalone house called The Dorchester.

The Dorchester was a two story house with two large bedrooms and excellently appointed bathrooms upstairs, along with a den, a living room (with fold out sofa), a kitchen, and another bathroom (this one with a washer and dryer) on the main floor. And all at a price cheaper than some single rooms we had stayed in so far. And the king size bed (one of the few we have encountered in the Canadian Maritimes) was perfect in terms of comfort – nice and firm without being hard.

Should you ever visit Charlottetown, The Great George is where you have to stay.

We arrived pretty late – around 8pm – but the front desk staff was able to suggest a couple of restaurants for dinner, and we settled on Sims Corner Steakhouse and Oyster House. Nice ambiance, but very spotty service. The food itself was quite good, with excellent appetizers and decent main courses. A particular favorite were the extremely fresh and plump PEI mussels. I also had some local oysters, and Canadian rib eye. Linda and I also enjoyed a very good Margaux with our meal. The food is definitely worth a trip to Sims, but be aware the service may be lacking a bit in terms of efficiency (and we’re used to island-time service back on Bonaire, and this was worse).

Our next day was spent driving around the center of Prince Edward Island in search of Anne of Green Gables and other diversions.

First, let me say that PEI (as Prince Edward Island is known) is beautiful and pastoral – outside the city the buildings are far apart with large fields separating them, lots of the fields used as farm land, with sprinkles of cows and horses here and there.

However, being the middle of October, we found just about every retail store and accommodation we drove by closed until next May or so. It appears that the main season for any sort of activity runs May through September – five months. The rest of the year things just close down and hibernate. The same applies to places like Cape Breton, as we noticed this past week.

We did find one shop open – Rustico Bay Wool Sweater Company, where the owner, the aptly named Kathy Winter, was also getting ready to close down for the season. Kathy was among the few people we had encountered on our trip who had heard of our home island of Bonaire. We ended up getting Bas a set of very soft and warm Alpaca wool gloves and being offered a couple of nice PEI apples (which tasted like Cortlands) on our way out.

We managed to find the PEI Information Center in Cavendish barely open – brochures were being boxed up in anticipation of closing down the center for the season this weekend. We did get some good advice on things still left to see, and then headed to the nearby park to explore some fabulous sand dunes.

Cavendish is one of the places where Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables (and numerous other books featuring strong female heroines), lived for a good bit of her early life, and many of the settings in her books, as well as the characters, were drawn from her own experiences and observations on PEI in the Cavendish area.

What we found fascinating was how much of the local tourism industry had evolved around a fictional teenage girl from a book published in 1908. In addition to the house used as the model for Green Gables, the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and a couple of museums, a vast number of commercial enterprises had all hopped on the Anne bandwagon. We saw Anne of Green Gables chocolates being promoted, the Kindred Spirits Inn (using an oft repeated phrase from the Anne books), and several amusement and theme parks all based on the characters and stories of the various Anne of Green Gables books.

Anyhow, after the dunes we visited the Anne of Green Gables Museum near Shining Water. The museum was actually a museum about Lucy Maud Montgomery, and situated in a house owned by relatives of hers where she had spent a fair bit of time during her younger years. In addition to furnishings and memorabilia actually mentioned in some of her books, we saw excerpts from her journals, signed first editions of her books, and photos and stories documenting Lucy Maud Montgomery’s life. Pretty interesting. We also learned that the book Anne of Green Gables at one point was required reading in Japanese schools, and thus the whole area, and the museum in particular, was a major Japanese tourist attraction.

Amusingly, we found that a not insignificant number of the tourists to the area believed Anne was a real person instead of the fictional character that she actually is. That said, Anne certainly seems to have a life, and following, of her own.

After the museum we continued our scenic drive, ultimately ending up in Summerside, another city, about an hour from Charlottetown. We were starving by the time we got there, but sadly had no idea where to look for a good restaurant (not having brought our Fodor’s or AAA guides with us, foolishly), and ended with experimenting with “Chinese and Canadian Cuisine” (the subtitle for every Chinese restaurant we had so far seen in Nova Scotia and PEI) at China Star Restaurant in the heart of a rather desolate Summerside. The food was not bad, but as we had ordered a couple of Szechuan dishes, we had hoped for more spice and flavor. A fine place to go if you’re hungry. By the way, the “Canadian Cuisine” thing is apparently something that is almost required if you’re serving foreign foods in this area, as we’ve learned, as it tells less adventurous diners that it’s “safe” to eat there – they can get their sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, fried fish and scallops, and french fries in addition to whatever else might be on the menu.

We continued our scenic route back to Charlottetown, with the sole highlight being a farm for miniature horses, several of which were out in the yard by the road. They were absolutely adorable, and quite friendly. Bas was convinced we should go buy one right then and there, but we explained that we only had four seats home, so if we got the small horse, he’d have to stay behind. He wisely decided this might not be the right time for a miniature horse after all.

I had a conference call to attend to when we returned, and we then attempted to do a little bit of shopping in the pretty historic part of Charlottetown, but our efforts were brought up short when it turned out that all the shops, with one exception, closed at 5pm, which is what time we had gone out. We did find one shop, Firehouse Studios, which was open a bit later though. Firehorse is a shop specializing in artistic glass – including fused glass, stained glass, and the like. Some beautiful work there. Plus they also have classes and supplies for making your own glass art. The person working the shop was kind enough to provide us some tips on how to fuse glass and we hope to be able to give it a try ourselves once we get the necessary materials and dust off our kiln.

For dinner we chose Lot 30, which we had been told was the best restaurant in Charlottetown. We left Bas behind at The Dorchester, well fed from leftovers from lunch, and Krystyana, Linda, and I headed for Lot 30. We found the menu interesting and tried to make sure to each order something different so we could do our own tasting. Our waiter was a bit slow and hesitant in responding to our questions, but much better than the one from the previous night at Sims. We enjoyed our appetizers immensely – I had foie gras with scallop and shredded beef, Krystyana had a turnip and apple soup, and Linda had fried local oysters (which were the best appetizer of the three).

But the main courses were a bit disappointing, perhaps in that each of our plates shared key accompaniments with one of the other main courses on the table. For example, my scallops had a vegetable medley which was identical to that for Linda’s duck, and mashed potatoes just like those with Krystyana’s pork belly. And the girls both had another type of vegetable in common as well. First, the flavors of the accompanying items, while possibly better suited to one of the dishes did not translate well to the other in terms of a flavor combined, and second, it seemed to be a bit, well, lazy, at least in terms of creativity. And it also didn’t quite mesh with the descriptions of the dishes on the menu. One area where service was excellent though was in food delivery, in that they always made sure that each person at a table got their course at exactly the same time. However, on the flip side, the food was delivered without explanation, which considering how the food was not as described in the menu, was a bit off-putting.

If Lot 30 was supposedly the best fine dining restaurant in Charlottetown then Charlottetown has a ways to go in terms of fine dining.

Our final day of our three day, three province experience, namely today, started very early, as we needed to drive for about two and a half hours to make it to the Joggins Fossil Institute in Joggins, Nova Scotia for a 10am walking tour. This involved, other than an early departure, driving a number of kilometers over the Confederation Bridge (which also charges a hefty toll of CA$41.50) into New Brunswick, and then back into Nova Scotia. So, in fact, we hit three provinces in about two hours.

The Joggins Fossil Institute consists of a newly built (opened April 2008) museum and research complex atop the cliffs in the village of Joggins. Joggins is a recently certified UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the location of the discovery of the world’s oldest reptile fossil, all the back from the Carboniferous Era around 350 million years ago.

Our tour turned out to be a private one simply because no one else showed up, so we had Brian Hebert, the Chief Interpreter of the Joggins Fossil Institute, all to ourselves for two whole hours. Brian walked up up and down about one kilometer of shoreline (it was low tide in the Bay of Fundy, which Joggins abuts), showing us examples of fossil trees, veins of coal, rock stratification and collapse, details about tidal erosion, and all sorts of other good things.

While it was freezing out (at least for us thin blooded types), with high winds causing a biting chill factor, we braved it out and by the end of our tour were able to find all sorts of interesting fossils of our own in the limestone debris littering the beach below the museum. Unfortunately we didn’t find anything unique enough for the museum to want to put in its depository of fossils. Brian was an excellent and enthusiastic guide, and, as it turns out, one of the most prolific discovers of new and unique fossils in the area. He had recently found the only fossil of a scorpion ever seen in the Joggins area, for example.

After warming up a bit with hot Chai and coffee after the tour, we finished exploring the museum, “donated” to the gift shop for a number of new books, and then made our way back into New Brunswick and the Schnitzel Haus in Aulac, right across the border from Nova Scotia. We had a good hearty German lunch (with pretty reasonable service, for a change), and then made our way to the city of Moncton and the Crowne Plaza hotel here.

There was no clearly marked entrance to the hotel, at least not for bringing in luggage, so we ended having to call the hotel from a nearby parking lot for assistance with our growing pile of luggage. Our room was nice and big enough for all of us to sleep in, but we’re not impressed with the rest of the hotel. The corridors outside our room reek of cigarette smoke (apparently because the rooms themselves are supposed to be smoke free with fines for those who light up in them), and the hotel is located in a kind of grungy part of town, just a block away from a nicer section with lots of restaurants.

As Krystyana is still tired of seafood, we opted for a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant, Vien Dong, on Main Street. I found the food pretty good, but Linda wasn’t thrilled with her soup or any of the rest of the dishes we ordered, commenting that this was basically repackaged Chinese food – she may have been right to an extent.

Service again was quite slow though, but this time possibly because the restaurant was quite busy and there was only one waiter. We also found the beverage options (at least the ones on our menus) rather limited. The portions were huge compared to what we had experienced so far in the Canadian Maritimes. If you’re desperate for Thai food in Moncton, Vien Dong would not be a bad choice in any event.

We got back to our room and started planning our next day, which involves trying to go experience the Magnetic Hill, see the Hopewell Rocks, and then make our way to St. Andrews, near the Maine border.

 

The Tidal Bore, Maple Syrup, Using Water and Steam Power, and Alexander Graham Bell

October 12th, 2008 at 8:23 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The breakfast at the motel was pure carbs, so we dined en suite on the various cheeses and cold cuts we had picked up along the way for snacks. It was just about the best breakfast we had had so far on our journey (the breakfast at Cora’s in Halifax on Wednesday was the only one better).

The main reason we stopped for the night in Truro was so that we could observe the Truro Tidal Bore in action. The tidal bore is a rapid tidal change caused by tidal waters surging up a narrow channel, the Salmon River in this case, so instead of waiting for hours to see a difference in water levels due to the tide, you can see it in minutes. The tidal bore in Truro was schedule to occur at 10:21am in the morning, but we had been warned not to have huge expectations as many factors affected the rapidity with which the tidal waters would flow upriver. We hoped for a nice wall of water, but ultimately what we saw was the water rise about four feet in about ten minutes, without a lot of visual drama. It was pretty cool to be watching the water in the river serenely flow downstream and then all of a sudden realize the whole flow of the water had reversed course and was now rushing upstream. But it wasn’t breathtaking.

We headed north after the bore of the tidal bore, and as we left Truro, Linda spotted a bald eagle on a tree off the side of the road, so we got as close as we could and took pictures of our one major live wild animal find for the day (we saw lots of cool road kill – a deer, porcupines, skunks, an opossum, pets, etc., but Bas said dead animals didn’t count).

We stopped en route at Sugar Moon Farm, a nice log cabin structure in which you could have breakfast all day, featuring locally grown and made products, including maple syrup made right there at Sugar Moon. After a hearty early lunch of red fife wheat pancakes (healthier carbs than white flour by a long way), a frittata, home-made granola, and a variety of excellent sausages, the co-owner of Sugar Moon, Quita Gray, gave us a tour of the facilities as well as an orientation on how sugar maple sap is collected and processed. We learned that the local Indians first taught the European settlers how to harvest maple sap, and that Canada is now the world’s largest producer of maple syrup. We also discovered that collecting maple sap by buckets is a thing of the past (except for people with only a few trees), and that larger producers of maple syrup use plastic tubing to create a delivery network that brings the sap directly to the processing vats.

Maple sap, which is generally as clear as water (probably because it is over 95% water in the first place), is collected during March and April each year. At most, each sugar maple tree would have two taps, and each tap will typically output enough maple sap to produce one pint of maple syrup. The ratio of sap to syrup is about 40 to 1, so there’s a lot of water that needs to be evaporated to condense the sap to syrup. We learned a bunch of new things at Sugar Moon Farm we had not expected to be enriched with, so it was a truly worthwhile visit – never mind the great food as an added bonus.

Our next two stops were the Balmoral Grist Mill Museum and the Sutherland Steam Mill, both run as part of a network of Nova Scotia Provincial Museums.

At the Balmoral Grist Mill we had a docent explain the milling process as well as the history of the mill itself. We discovered that raw oats look nothing like what we expected – they are actually rather ovoid, seed-like things. We also found that buckwheat is not a wheat at all, but instead a relative of rhubarb, and during the milling process, the outer shell is removed entirely, making the inner endosperm (the part that is milled into flour) rather void of complex carbohydrates. Same for oats. The only flour which retains some of the complex carbs along with the refined (and really bad for you) carbs would be whole wheat flour, as that includes the bran (the outside casing) of the seed of the wheat. I will get into the whole issue of refined carbs and the diseases they help spur along in homo sapiens at a later date when I write up a review of Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories” – a real eye opener which relates incredibly well to my personal dietary experiences.

Sorry, I digressed, again.

At the Sutherland Steam Mill we had another docent-guided tour. Here we learned about how steam-powered saw mills operated over a half century ago, with both insightful and witty commentary by our guide, Andrew. It’s pretty amazing how resourceful people can be with limited resources and not much oversight from the Occupational Safety & Health Administraton (OSHA).

Our final stop of the day prior to trucking on to Cape Breton was at The Pork Shop for some protein for the road (great German-style cold cuts).

We had a nearly three hour drive up to Baddeck (pronounced “Bad-ek”), in the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton has a strong Gaelic cultural background, and all the road signs are in both English and Gaelic. We surmise that the “Breton” refers to the “Bretons”, Celtic folk who settled in Brittany in France as well as Scotland and Ireland. And it’s no coincidence that just 25 minutes from Baddeck, in St. Ann’s Bay, is the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts & Crafts, nor that there is an annual Celtic Colours Festival here (going on right now).

When we got to our hotel in Baddeck, the Inverary Resort, we discovered that while we had connecting rooms, they each had only one bed, and not enough room to fit an extra bed in either room for our second child (since there’s no way a 13-year old girl will share a bed with her 11-year old brother). The front desk staff were very understanding, and managed to arrange an alternate room situation for us even though they were sold out last night. But we were still a bit grumpy from the experience and the long drive. And we got grumpier when we found we had to wait almost a half hour for a table at the resort’s Lakeside Café. However, once we got to having dinner, it completely wiped away all grumpiness. The food was just fantastic. My tomato seafood soup had the most perfectly cooked shrimp I can recall eating in a very long time, and the white wine garlic sauce for Bas’ mussels was devine, as were Krystyana’s local scallops. And Linda says her trout was also perfect – moist, slightly pink, and delightful. Only my pork chops did not meet this new standard the restaurant had set for itself, in that they were a tad dry. But their flavor was quite good. An excellent meal, and one which completely overcame our travel weariness-based unhappiness with the original room situation at the resort.

This morning we dined in the main dining room and had a passable breakfast (on the house, however, so that made it a little better) before venturing forth into Baddeck to go and do a week’s worth of laundry at the local laundromat.

We then spent a couple of hours at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and Museum. We had at first wondered why this was located here in Baddeck, but it turns out he had a home in Baddeck, and did a lot of his research work here too.

It was endlessly fascinating, as we learned that while the invention of the telephone is what Bell is best known for, he also developed and invented countless other devices and technologies, and was involved with research in a variety of areas. For example, he co-invented the gramophone (cylindrical model) as an improvement over Edison’s recording/playback device as well as an operational high-speed hydrofoil. He also helped develop Canada’s airplane program.

Bell’s wife Mabel, whom he met as her teacher – he taught deaf children to speak using a special visual language system – was also a very strong and intelligent woman, and many of his successes can be credited to her support of his efforts, both emotionally and financially (she was the majority stockholder in Bell at the time).

Definitely visit this museum should you get to Baddeck.

We had a late lunch at the Telegraph House (where Bell apparently stayed before he had a home in Baddeck). They had good chicken wings, and a very nice turkey soup, but the other food was a bit disappointing – my seafood casserole was mostly mashed potatoes, and the peas served as my vegetable were canned peas.

The rest of the afternoon was spent driving up to St. Ann’s Bay to see the foliage and visit a few artisans’ shops.

We ended with a very nice dinner at Gisele’s across the street from the Inverary Resort. Great lamb (according to Linda), a nice prune stuffed chicken breast for Krystyana, and a turkey dinner for me (tomorrow is Canada’s Thanksgiving Day). Bas only had dessert, but enjoyed it greatly.

Tomorrow we’re due to drive the Cabot Trail, as well as go out on a Zodiac to find whales. It will be a very long day, as the Cabot Trail is nearly 200 miles long (and scenic and windy). We’re also hoping to finally spot some wild moose.

 

The Anxiety of Not Planning – Two Days in Halifax

October 7th, 2008 at 9:47 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We were woken yesterday morning by the sounds of a bagpipe in the park across the street from our hotel. Seemed apropos in a place called New Scotland (Nova Scotia).

It was a beautiful day outside, and I pointed out to Bas the fact that fall foliage seemed to just be starting here in Halifax, and delighting in the fact that we had not missed the color change. Bas then pointed out to me that he had actually never been through fall foliage before. Kind of a sad thing to realize for a boy who was born in New Hampshire. However, we knew this was a deficiency in experience that we would be able to correct in the coming weeks.

The other new thing for Bas was that that until now he had always worn shoes with Velcro straps or which were just slip-ons. But for this trip, because we expected to do some hiking and simply climbing, we upgraded him to real hiking shoes with laces. So now he’s having to deal with also getting used to tying shoelaces – another new experience.

But the real trauma with Bas arose when he asked me what we were going to do for the day and I responded that I didn’t know. He was quite upset by my response. I asked him why, and his response was “Because you always know what we’re doing.”. Another sad truth for the day – I was raising a child that was just as anal retentive as I was. This spontaneous, unplanned travel thing will take more time to get used to for everyone.

When we first came up with the odd (for us) idea of going to the Canadian Maritimes without a particular agenda in mind, we were concerned that perhaps we might have selected a poor destination for this adventure and would not find enough to do, but as we speak to native Nova Scotians (the guide books refer to them as “Blue noses” but none of the Nova Scotians we spoke to would admit to that nickname), we are finding more and more interesting things to consume what little time we now appear to have here in Nova Scotia as well as in neighboring Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

We ended up with a late breakfast yesterday, then a climb up the hillside of the Halifax Citadel, an old military fortress which is also the highest point of Halifax. We learned quite a bit about the history of Halifax there, and also observed the firing of the noon cannon, a long standing tradition which was used to inform Haligonians (the name for those from Halifax) that it was exactly noon. Certainly one of the more interesting time-pieces we’ve come across.

We then wandered downhill towards the waterfront in the hopes of securing a lobstering tour at Murphy’s On The Water, but our hopes were not fulfilled as it appears to be too late in the season to enjoy such a tour. So we settled for a nice meal at Murphy’s Restaurant instead, enjoying our first bite of Nova Scotian seafood, including Digby scallops, a lobster, mussels, and a few other treats such as three different kinds of small whole potatoes – purple, red, and white. Service was pretty decent too. While the restaurant definitely seems to be mostly tourist oriented, we would recommend it to others looking for a nice seafood meal along the Halifax waterfront. And be sure to try the regional wines from the Jost winery and the sweet potato fries too.

After our leisurely lunch, we headed over to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where, as Linda put it, “we found out all about history that we never knew existed” including lots of details about the ill-famed Titanic, as well as the Great Explosion of Halifax in 1917 (a ship laden with explosives blew up after a collision and the resulting explosion caused incredible damage and carnage), and the battles against French occupied Louisberg to the north in Cape Breton.

We wandering back to our hotel via streets filled with eclectic shopping opportunities for a couple hour break at our hotel before dinner at one of Halifax’s finest resaturants, Onyx. We didn’t know it was one of Halifax’s best restaurants when we made our reservation, but after dining there, we have to say that the service was top-notch – better than at many “fine dining” restaurants we have dined at elsewhere. The menu and our meals were also excellent. We enjoyed duck, tenderloin, lamb, and monkfish, as well as a variety of appetizers and even a baked apple with a flambé filling for dessert. Onyx is highly recommended by The Traveling Richters.

After a good night’s sleep we returned to our exploration of Halifax, with a visit to the Halifax Natural History Museum. Another excellent museum, featuring a diverse set of exhibits blending information about local fauna, dentistry (great exhibit for kids), results of archeology in old Acadian lands, and mineralogy, among other things.

We walked back to the harbor for lunch at McKelvie’s, another restaurant specializing in seafood. Again, we had excellent service and great food. The seafood chowder was creamy and flavorful, while the seafood salad was close to perfect. And in terms of spice, the Szechuan scallops were just right (using local Digby scallops, of course). Again, another recommended restaurant in Halifax.

After our meal, we spent the afternoon at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia looking at the works of Tom Forrestal as well as Nova Scotian folk art, Inuit art, some very odd photography, and pieces from the Gallery’s permanent collection. We also discovered that the Gallery has a nice cafe by the (in our opinion, unfortunate) name of Cheapside Cafe. Regardless of the name, the Cheapside Cafe has great ambiance, and a very nice selection of desserts and coffees, and apparently serves some mean sandwiches at lunchtime.

Our evening walk brought us to our final dinner in Halifax at Opa Greek Taverna where we enjoyed a leisurely meal consisting entirely of mezithes (appetizers and small plates) and a nice bottle of a Boutari reserva. And again, amazingly, we had excellent service. We don’t know if we just lucked out with the service at the restaurants we chose for our lunches and dinners here in Halifax, or if waitstaff in Halifax just has better training, but either way we’ve been very impressed by the attentiveness and knowledge of the waitstaff serving us. And the food quality has been very good too. Mind you, as a counterpoint, the breakfasts at our hotel (the Lord Nelson) have been merely ordinary, both in terms of the food (weird scrambled eggs) and service (a bit slow).

We finished our final evening in Halifax weary from all of our walking, but pleased with all that we learned and saw. And as a bonus, it appears we might have a rental mini-van at a very good rental price all the way to Bar Harbor and possibly even beyond.

Considering our lack of planning, things went pretty well the last couple of days. Hopefully Bas will learn from that. And maybe I will too…

 

Doing Uncommon Exploring In New York City

September 4th, 2008 at 5:39 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

When we first decided back in July that we wanted to spend a couple of weeks in New York City last month, we knew we wanted to do things we had not done before during prior visits. That meant we didn’t need to go to the top of the Empire State Building, see the permanent exhibits at the Natural History Museum or Metropolitan Museum of Art, or gawking in Times Square.

However, finding out-of-the-ordinary things to do in New York City was a bit of a challenge. Our American Express Concierge service could only come up with a helicopter tour of New York City. And posts on various travel sites also didn’t elicit anything particularly stellar, except for one thing – a suggestion to get in touch with Context Travel.

Context Travel specializes in scholar-led walks of a number of “great” cities, including Rome, Paris, and New York. If only we had known about them when we were in Paris a couple of months ago… We had first heard of Context Travel in a magazine from American Express just recently, and thought they only covered European cities. They were highlighted as having helped director Ron Howard get a private tour of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel in preparation for the forthcoming movie “Angels & Demons”. So when the folks at Indagare suggested we check out their New York City offerings, we jumped at the idea.

Ultimately, we arranged four tours with Context Travel – I will go into those in another blog entry. But I will say all were very informative and educational, and we’re very glad we partook of the tours.

Another uncommon thing we managed to arrange through our contacts at Relais & Châteaux (where we are members of something called Club 5C), was a private cooking lesson with Chef Tony Aiazzi of the famed Aureole restaurant in New York City. And we also attended a presentation on cooking with liquid nitrogen at Astor Center. More on both of those later too.

We also managed to have dinner in the La Cave cheese cave at Artisanal Bistro, found a last minute table at Per Se (well, actually about two weeks in advance of our dinner), enjoyed dim sum and Peking duck in Chinatown, afternoon tea at The Peninsula’s Gotham Lounge and at The London NYC, Korean BBQ in K-town, and a few other culinary delights.

While we were looking for the more unusual experiences, we also did partake of the more ordinary delights of New York, including visiting various museums to see special exhibits, and a personal first for me – visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. That was an especially emotional and moving day for me because of my roots as a first-generation American. We also caught an off-off Broadway performance, saw a couple of movies, and walked and walked and walked.

There also was business to take care of – we spent our first couple of days in New York at the New York International Gift Fair searching for new products to off in our on-line store at www.BonaireStuff.com. And I had a client meeting for my patent-related consulting business too.

All in all we had an excellent time in New York City. The weather was perfect just about all the time, we had a child sitter service available to us at our great hotel (we had two adjacent rooms at the all-suite The London NYC), and we ate very very well. The only downside to our trip was the markedly higher number our bathroom scales showed us upon our return.