Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Burke Museum and UW Seismology Lab

When my friend Alex said, "Wanna go on a field trip with my class?" I thought, "Like...as a chaperone?" But no, Alex's college geology class was taking a trip to visit the University of Washington's seismology lab as well as the nearby Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and guests were welcome. Always eager to participate in nerdy activities, I readily accepted the invitation.

We started our journey at the UW seismology lab, which looked a lot less like the international space station flight control room than I expected. Instead, all of the field trippers, amounting to about 20 students, wedged into the lab with only a tiny bit of breathing room.

The most advanced earthquake monitoring and recording equipment in the Northwest looks like this:

Even more interesting than (and approximately the same square footage as) the main lab was the seismology closet.

We visited the lab just a week before the 9.0 rocked Japan, so we weren't able to see any of those recordings, though they must have been absolutely incredible.

Alex and I unpacked ourselves from sardine-tin lab and walked across campus to our next stop, the Burke Museum.

Although the Burke is not an especially large museum, the use of space and quality of exhibits is exceptional. Alex's professor, who proved to be as knowledgeable about natural history as he is about geology, led us through the exhibits displaying dinosaur skeletons, fossils and other amazing prehistoric artifacts.

A sauropod femur is nearly as tall as I am and probably weighs more.

The replicas of dinosaur bones were so realistic that I couldn't tell which ones were genuine. Archeopteryx, an avian ancestor is called "Urvogel" in German, which is a combination of the word for "bird" and the prefix used for "first" or "great," as in "great-grandmother." This is the great-grandmother bird's fossilized remains:

You can see the elements that make this species a transition between reptiles and their flighted relations.

A mastodon skeleton loomed over an entire narrow room, so much so that I couldn't frame it properly for a photo.

Did you know that when breaking ground for Seatac airport, construction workers stumbled upon the fossilized skeleton of a giant ground sloth? Did you even know such a thing as giant ground sloths used to exist?

In life they probably looked more like this:

And the Tyco toy company, with which many children of the 1980s are familiar, would have us believe that neanderthals used giant sloths as mounts for riding and shooting each other with turret-mounted lasers, rather like this. Slowest blitzkrieg ever.

We also learned about an archeological site in eastern Washington where the ancestor of what we know today as rhinos got caught in a lava flow that essentially acted as a flash-flood fossilization. The body burned up but the lava hardened into a rhino-shaped hole around it.

You probably aren't supposed to recline in the hole, but rather inspect it scientifically. Oh well.

The final skeleton we viewed, the Terror Bird, was displayed with accompanying drawings that (I quote Alex here) "made him look more like a terror chicken." Some of these birds stood over 10 feet and weighed in at about 400 pounds.

The lower floor of the Burke Museum also houses a collection of art from native peoples from around the world, so we perused the spectacular masks and totem poles, even though they were not even tangentially related to geology.

The museum, located just off of NE 45th on the UW campus, is open to the public daily from 10am to 5pm. For up-to-date information about visiting the museum, check out the Burke Blog here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Oh, Canada!

Lion fish, tiger sharks, and bears, oh my! This weekend my dad's sweetheart, Mimi, and I took some girls' time in Vancouver, BC. Although I only live about 3 hours away, I'd never been to this international hub and I had been toying with the idea of driving up to visit the state-of-the-art aquarium there alone. As it turned out, Mimi is quite familiar with the city and was a willing travel companion, so we threw a couple of bags into her Subaru Forester and headed north.

Once inside the city, our first stop was at Pekoe Tea, a small shop where you can buy a variety of loose teas, specially blended and then dubbed fanciful names like Jasmine Dragon Pearl, Caramel Cup, Festivus, and Shitty Weather.

The best part is that a large rack of tins, each with a different tea blend, is available for your sniffing pleasure. That way, you don't get all the way home and into your first kettle before discovering you aren't as into Tiramisu Tea as you thought you'd be. You can also just order a little pot of tea, plus a cookie or scone and sit in the cafe portion of the shop.

Next we navigated the tiny parking garage of the Robsonstrasse Hotel (no idea why the name of the hotel is German--no other traces of Deutschland in the whole place) and checked in. This lamp was the only notable thing about the hotel room:

As soon as we could, Mimi and I hit the streets to get in some quality tourism time before dinner. We stopped at a bookstore and a candy store, saw the Vancouver art gallery and were handed some free limes, courtesy of Corona. Check out the critters made from caramel apples on the top shelf:

And why have I not already invented the combination of gummy bears, caramel and apple?

We also stopped for coffee and salad at a cafe that turned out to be trendy, with chic wall art.

After a lot more walking, a remarkable number of shoe stores, and many more shops, our stomachs urged us to find a restaurant. Always wanting to made the more informed choice, I made us wander the city for about 20 minutes before returning to the first place we'd looked at. Chau Kitchen, a Vietnamese restaurant decorated in sleek red and black, served us some excellent pho, fried spring rolls and a steamy rice dish. The waitress, however, was less than helpful about the presence of glutenous ingredients in the dishes; fortunately I love pho, and it's gluten free!

I slept quite soundly at the Robsonstrasse after staying out late chatting at Chau. We woke up early to embark on our Vancouver Aquarium excursion, and asked the oddly uninformed receptionist how to get there. Most of the questions we posed to the front desk staff at the Robsonstrasse Hotel went unanswered.

A chill hovered in the air and the overcast sky didn't bode well for our plans, but Stanley Park is beautiful, even when your teeth are chattering.

Helpful signs directed us through the park to the aquarium, where we found we weren't the only ones who decided to visit the premiere Northwest aquarium that day. If you think my photography skills have been dismal up until this point, you'll be sorry to know they didn't improve in time to get any good shots at the aquarium, so even though the while place was engaging, educational and visually appealing, my photos are not. Here are the best of them:

Dreamy moon jellies:

A sealion at a feeding we were lucky enough to get front-row seats to:

The children's area of the aquarium was adorable, complete with a pretend seal rescue station.

We watched a beluga whale presentation from an underwater viewing area.

A temporary Amazon exhibit that rivaled any permanent Amazon display I've seen had been constructed in the aquarium's lower level.

Scarlet ibis are always stunning.

Hyacinth macaws are the largest species of parrot in the world.

This tiny tucanet put on a show by taking a bath in a water fall.

A two-toed sloth hanging out with an ibis.

This frog is channeling Buddha.

Once we'd seen every animal there was to see in the aquarium, we went back into Stanley Park, and were pleased to see the sun breaking through.

Before enjoying a lunch of leftover Vietnamese food in our hotel room, Mimi and I stopped by the site of the Olympic torch.

Nearby an artist had erected a giant pixelated orca whale, representing how things need to be digitalized to get people's attention. He reminded me of legos.

Mimi is a Native American art enthusiast to an extent rivaled only by my dad. Both of them are extremely knowledgeable about the various mediums, styles, and artists, so much so that I feel certain they will be receiving offers from museums hoping to buy their collections soon. Vancouver is home to a number of Native American art galleries, thanks to its proximity to First Nation peoples. So of course, we visited a couple galleries where I was entranced by the art, though somehow it felt voyeuristic to photograph the pieces.

As evening descended, I once again made us wander the city too long trying to decide where to eat, but finally we chose Fogg N' Suds, a restaurant and bar based on the theme "Around the World in 80 Days." Though I could not sample the much-touted beer selection, I did have a fruity martini and a fresh spinach and goat cheese salad with dried cranberries and walnuts. Not only was the food excellent, but the atmosphere was pleasant, the view of the street was entertaining and the waitstaff were friendly and helpful. We ate well, returned to the hotel and slept well.

Sunday morning we packed up, checked out of the Robsonstrasse Hotel and drove to Granville Island, the venue for Vancouver's public market and independent shopping district. The market reminded me of Seattle's Pike Place Market, on a smaller scale, with vendors selling everything from New York sausage to fresh flowers to knitted baby hats with bear ears.

Our last stop before making the trek back to Seattle was the Lattimer Gallery, an inviting little gallery with a genial young man well-versed in First Nation art standing behind the display cases.

I hope to visit this lively, welcoming city again soon!

Bye, Vancouver!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation

For some of us, the word "conservation" conjures images of people chained to trees, for others, cuddly baby animals, and maybe some of us think of that crying Native American guy. This week I attended a conference in Seattle held by an organization called Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation, so I had some time to think about what conservation really means to me.

Although sitting for 8 hours a day in the Sheraton Hotel might not seem like the most exciting way to spend a week, I was riveted. Rather than provide you with a play-by-play of the presentations (though I'm sure that would be thrilling) I'm going to highlight a few things I learned.

1.) Due to the introduction of the gray wolf into neighboring states, Washington state is now home to 17 wolves in 3 packs. Yay! Not everyone is as enthusiastic about wolves in the state as I am; preemptive measures are already underway to help mediate human/wolf conflict. Historically, almost 100% of these conflicts will involve human aggressors.

2.) Rubbing ground chili peppers on wire fencing will keep Asian elephants out of your crops (but not African elephants).

3.) Mars (the company, not the planet) is surprisingly socially responsible. The company sent a delegate to present about their program which employs indigenous people to pick the cocoa beans they use to make their chocolate. The local women use bark from the sustainably grown cocoa trees to make paper, which you can purchase here. Additionally, the company's Sustainable Solutions department has found a way to make all of their chocolate without the palm oil that is so destructive to the rainforest, and they're working on ways to get palm oil out of all their other products too. So everyone, eat Snickers, M&M's, Milkyways and Dove chocolates with a clear conscience!

4.) Reportedly, a chocolate shortage looms on the horizon. I didn't want to believe it, and after doing a little digging, it seems that it might be possible to avert the decline in the availability of the cocoa bean. We can only hope.

5.) Genetic scientists and virologists now believe that HIV jumped in several isolated events from non-human primates (several different species) to a human via activities involved in the bushmeat trade.

Also, scientists previously thought the strain of the virus found in chimps (SIV) was asymptomatic, but recent studies show 10-fold increase in early death for infected chimps.

Zoos are helping conduct so many exciting conservation projects all over the world. Despite the somewhat gloomy outlook for a lot of species and wild places, the overall vibe at ZACC was very positive. We CAN reverse this trend!

To prove it to you, here are some gratuitous pictures of animals I took at the Woodland Park Zoo.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Brush with Fame: National Geographic and ABC

I'm just going to have to face it: I am not compelling enough for television. I'm barely entertaining enough to have a blog. So, as much as I would like to use media sources to get the word out about ways to conserve and be greener etc., I'm no Jeff Corwin.

Almost, but not quite.

Fortunately, there are journalists out there who are taking care of business. One such journalist is Dan Harris of ABC's Good Morning America, who attended a day of the ZACC (Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation) conference. After delivering a keynote address, he moderated a presentation session emphasizing conservation through media and art. I also attended a similarly-focused round-table discussion he led, during which Dan Harris invited us to pitch ideas for Good Morning America stories. So I contemplated what sort of bit I could suggest.

Selfishly, I wanted to be part of the story and yet, it turns out I'm boring. I did think of a couple of Point Defiance Zoo-related stories that Mr. Harris might be interested in, but all media attention falls squarely in the laps of the full-time staff. At least 57% of me wanted to answer, "As a matter of fact, I am incredibly compelling." But I will have to earn my fifteen minutes of fame another way.

As if my attendance at Comic Con weren't enough to confirm my social awkwardness, after the round-table discussion I approached Dan Harris and said, "At the risk of being a complete dork, if you don't mind, I would really like to have a picture taken with you." He smiled and said, "Of course."

"But wait," I continued. "I'm going to get dorkier. I would really like it if the gentleman from National Geographic would take the picture." There was indeed a director of research from National Geographic sitting directly behind us.

Dan Harris swiftly and politely asked Kyler Abernathy of National Geographic if he would please indulge me and take the photo. Here it is:

That's right. The director of research at National Geographic took my picture with an anchor from ABC. That is as close as I'll get to fame.

So the picture FEELS like this:

More information about the ZACC conference will follow, but if you're dying for some saving-an-adorable-animal-in-peril coverage, watch this story about tree kangaroos. Also, Mr. Abernathy is part of the team behind National Geographic's Crittercam, through which you can swim with humpback whales and watch the pursuit of an octopus from a sea lion's perspective. If you haven't seen Crittercam's stunning footage yet, you absolutely must.

And, in the meantime, if you think of any fascinating stories that would make compelling journalism, let me know. Also, I'm totally willing to be on a reality TV show about zoos. Just throwing that out there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Comic Con 2011: Ramping up the Nerdiness

Having read very few comic books in my lifetime, I feel hugely under-qualified to review Emerald City Comic Con 2011. Not only is my DC/Marvel nerd knowledge lacking, but my photos don't do justice to the bizarre and amazing things I saw there. But I'll try.

Seattle's Comic Con exploded in the past few years; now it includes other pop culture and cult classic series, not just comics. It's not just for nerds anymore. Well okay, it's still just for nerds--but for a wide variety of nerds! And Seattleites are into it. People in costumes of every sci-fi and comic character you can think of (and a whole bunch you can't) wandered the Convention Hall.

We wore our nerdiest shirts; Jared got several compliments on his, which features a Star Wars joke within a Star Trek joke--ultimate nerdiness. Mine is just furtuistic profanity. Many of the best-dressed attendees were mobbed by people wanting to take their photos, but I was only brave enough to ask this nice gentleman in a Tom Baker Dr. Who outfit.

Even though The Shat--William Shatner himself--Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, James Marsters, and several other celebrities signed autographs and held photo sessions, the minimum charge was twenty bucks, so this is as close as I got to my Star Trek favorites:

We were in the same room as all the stars, but the crowds who paid for face-time blocked our view of everyone except, very distantly, Felicia Day from The Guild. Even so, this is the best picture I could capture zoomed in from across the room.

One of the best costumes we saw was a cross-dressing Wonder Woman, but I was too shy to ask him/her for a picture. Other highlights were about 15 Boba Fetts in a clone parade, a Weeping Angel from Dr. Who, a 4-year-old with mechanical Batman wings, and a Silver Surfer who had painted himself entirely in shiny silver body paint. But like I said, I didn't get good photos of these things, so here's an Incredible Hulk made from balloons:

I also would like to encourage everyone to jump on the band wagon and start paying attention to a group of filmmakers from the Tacoma area who call themselves Dead Gentlemen Productions. These local boys are hitting the movie/weblog scene with episodes of a hilarious show called JourneyQuest, which we were able to catch a glimpse of on the big screen at Comic Con. I'll have to post a more complete review of their material at a later time. I want to be in one of their movies. So. Much. I'd make a good elf.