Posts Tagged ‘washington D.C.’

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.

 

Washington, D.C. – Food and Learning

November 18th, 2009 at 2:18 am (AST) by Jake Richter

We arrived in Washington, D.C. on Sunday afternoon, and so far have eaten at four great restaurants – Makoto, Jaleo, Ten Penh (for lunch), and Rasika.

There’s also been a fair bit of shopping done by the girls, my Alienware M17x monster notebook computer has finally been repaired so that my screen doesn’t shimmer in super graphics (SLI) mode, and we spent several hours today at the amazing Newseum followed by a too-short visit to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. And we’ve been doing lots of walking between places with the beautiful weather we’ve been experiencing here. In fact, Krystyana and I enjoyed a great nighttime stroll from Rasika back to our hotel tonight, taking in sights like the White House.

Krystyana in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Krystyana in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.

We’re planning on spending more time at the Newseum and the National Portrait Gallery on Wednesday, and hoping to hit the Museum of Crime and Punishment on Thursday before the National Geographic events we’re participating in start in earnest.

 

Dining Around – Minibar in D.C.

June 3rd, 2009 at 6:24 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The Traveling Richters have not traveled much in 2009, at least not so far. We spent a couple of weeks in Arizona and New Mexico in February, exploring red rocks, small bits of desert, art galleries, giant craters, Route 66, and ski slopes, but that’s been about it as my business travels have kept me away from home for pretty much the rest of the time.

The bar at Minibar has some nice ingredients on iceThat hasn’t stopped me from doing some exploration of my own in the various cities I’ve been visiting on business, and thus last night, I had the chance to dine at Minibar in Washington D.C., known for its difficult to obtain reservations (only six seats, two seatings nightly, five nights a week) and its outstanding fare. Minibar is set up like a sushi bar, and the featured cuisine is molecular gastronomy, which combines science with food ingredients to produce (sometimes) amazing culinary experiences. I made my reservation a month ago (the soonest you can book one of the prized spots at the bar at Minibar).

Our 26 course taste journey, spread out over about two hours, featured the following menu:

Munchies
Pisco Sour
Olive Oil “Bon-Bon”
Beet “Tumbleweed”
“Mojito”
“Bagels and Lox”
“Cornbread”
Steamed Brioche Bun with Caviar
Dragon’s Breath Popcorn
Boneless Chicken Wing
Blue Cheese and Almond
Cotton Candy Eel

Flavors & Textures
“Guacamole”
Zucchini in Textures
Green Almonds and “Raisins”
“Sundried” Tomato Salad
Smoked Oysters with Apples and Juniper
Salmon-Pineapple “Ravioli” with Crispy Quinoa
“Tzatziki” Salad
New England Clam Chowder
Parmesan “Egg” with Migas
Breaded Cigala with Sea Salad
“Philly Cheesesteak”

Pre-Dessert
Kumquats & Pumpkin Oil

Dessert
Frozen Yogurt and Honey
Thai Dessert

Sweet Endings
Chocolate Covered Corn Nuts – Mango Box – Saffron Gumdrop with Edible Wrapper

Minibar - Course 18 - Tzatziki SaladThe courses were all quite excellent, but I must say my favorites were the Tzatziki Salad (a spoom of Greek yogurt with juvenile cucumber flowers and garlic oil), the Philly Cheese Steak (a hollow bread filled with cheese foam and topped with Wagyu beef slices, and the Thai Dessert, which was like a Pad Thai in dessert form. The latter was the only one I failed to get a photo of during the evening.

The only mild negative was that the courses just kept coming a bit too quickly. But with the first seating at 6pm and the second at 8:30pm, I guess it’s kind of necessary.

The wait staff and chefs were attentive, willing to answer any question, no matter how odd or ignorant, and also very accommodating in explaining all aspects of their culinary arts. And my dinner companions were a delight to share the meal with as well – all of them strangers at the start of the meal and friendly acquaintances by the end.

I would highly recommend Minibar to anyone wanting to try molecular gastronomy and able to plan well in advance of a trip to Washington D.C. Photos from my culinary journey at Minibar can be found here.

Update: Just got a note about a post from Kristin Drohan, one of my dining companions that night at Minibar. Also, here’s a great play-by-play description of the same menu I enjoyed, written by friends of my friend Nell. My photos are better though ;-)

 

Cherry Blossoms in Washington D.C.

April 13th, 2008 at 4:41 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The main purpose of this post is to see if I can post images in this blog via e-mail using Yahoo! Flickr.

The picture here is from a drive-by photo shoot on my way to Reagan National Airport on Monday, March 31st. The fabled cherry blossoms on the 1000+ cherry trees in and around Washington DC had hit full bloom a few evenings prior, and this was my first chance to see them in person.

The sky is drab, but the blossoms were beautiful. They came in three different shades: white, light pink, and pinky-red (seen here).