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Into the Badlands

[Note: This entry was posted on Aug 2, 2019. It is backdated to keep it in chronological order.]

by George Taniwaki

On our trip to Rapid City (see Real Numeracy, Oct 2018), Sue and I saw notable geology and topography. Assuming you believe in evolution, the earth’s history can be seen written in land formations such as mountains, caves, and canyons. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in evolution, then there is no coherent explanation for what you see, it just is.

During our field trip around Rapid City we saw rocks with ages that span 2 billion years. There are not too many places on earth where you can see such a wide range of rock ages and types within a few miles of driving. (Denver, where I grew up is another such place. I didn’t realize how special it was until I moved away.)

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Geologic map showing Devils Tower, Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, and Badlands. Image from Mira Costa College

Late Precambrian—Igneous inclusions at Black Hills

The earth consists of a molten ball of iron and other heavy metals called the core. A layer of molten silica and other lighter materials called the mantle floats on top of it. The very top layer is a thin shell, less than 50 km (30 miles) thick that has cooled off and is solid. This layer, called the crust, is all we can normally see.

Geologic time starts about 4.8 billion years ago, when the earth was still a molten mass and the crust had not yet formed. The timeline is divided into 5 eons. The eons are subdivided into 11 eras, then periods, then epochs, then ages.

The story of the Northern Plains starts at the Orosirian period, between 2,050 to 1,800  million years ago. During this period, hot magma rose to the surface and solidified into two igneous rocks, granite and pegmatite. Under heat and pressure, some of these rocks metamorphosed into gneiss (pronounced nice). These form the bedrock making up the Black Hills.

Remember though, we don’t know what the surface of this area looked like back then. It may have been underwater. It probably was not mountainous like it is today, otherwise the inclusions would have eroded away by now.

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Granite in the Black Hills. Photo from Deadwood Connections

Paleozoic-Missing layers

There are no rocks aged between 1,800 million years to 225 million years old visible in the area around the Black Hills. They all became buried or eroded away.

Mesozoic—Inland sea and limestone

During the late Triassic through the Cretaceous period, 225 to 65 million years ago, the earth was warmer than now. Dinosaurs ruled the land. The continents began to drift apart and the middle part of what is now the North American continent was below sea level, part of an inland seaway. Salt water bacteria and invertebrate marine animals converted carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate. As they became buried under the sediment the shells became limestone, rich in fossils.

At the same time thin beds of mud, sand, and silt also built up creating layers of black shale, red sandstone, and red siltstone. These striped sedimentary rocks are visible at the base of the Black Hills.

Cenozoic—Inclusions at Devils Tower

During the Paleogene period, 65 to 23 million years ago, the earth began to cool. The dinosaurs became extinct and mammals of all sorts became the predominant land animals.

From the action of plate tectonics, the land to the west rose and the inland sea receded. Magma rising from the mantle circulated to the Earth’s crust forming inclusions and volcanoes. Nearby Devils Tower is a prominent example. The igneous rock is harder than the surrounding sedimentary formations that have eroded away, leaving a butte.

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Devils Tower, perhaps once a volcano or an alien beacon. Photo from Pattys-photos

Cenozoic—Volcanic ash at Badlands

Also during the Paleogene period, after the extinction of dinosaurs, a wide variety of mammals lived in the northern plains. Many of the species are now extinct, including saber-toothed cats, rhinos, tapirs, and three-toed horses. Periodically, a volcano would erupt killing them suddenly. Their remains can be found in fossil beds that can be dated by measuring the ratio of isotopes in the layer of ash they are found in.

The ash and lava are harder than the underlying sandstone or limestone. Places where the lava eroded away, the water and wind carved out steep canyons, called badlands.

I’ve been to Badlands National Park as a child. Today, it looks pretty much the same, rugged but beautiful.

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The Badlands in 1967 (top) and today (bottom)

Cenozoic—Supervolcanoes at Yellowstone caldera

During the Neogene period, 23 to 2.5 million years ago, continued tectonic action caused the land to rise just west of Rapid City, ultimately to 2,000m (6,500 ft) above sea level, creating the Black Hills.

This was accompanied by significant volcanic activity in the Rocky Mountains. We didn’t visit Yellowstone National Park on this trip as it is 600 km (360 miles) away, but it is worth mentioning. As you travel west through Wyoming, the mountains get taller and the volcanoes larger. The largest volcano is Yellowstone, the caldera of a supervolcano that had its last supereruption very recently on the geologic timescale, about 630,000 years ago. In that event, it ejected 1000 km3 of rock, dust, and ash, or about  250 times as much debris as the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. An earlier supereruption 2.1 million years ago is believed to have been 10 times larger than that.

Today, the Yellowstone volcano is quiet, but the area is teeming with geysers, hot springs, and mud pots.

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Notable geysers with live-stream webcams. Photo from National Park Service

Cenozoic—Limestone caverns at Jewel and Wind Cave

As the glaciers advanced and receded over the past 2.5 million years, the current period called Quaternary, groundwater percolated through the limestone. The water reacted with the calcium carbonate, dissolving it and carrying it away, leaving hollow areas called karsts. Further erosion caused the karsts to grow larger and more numerous. Eventually they formed sinkholes on the surface and caves underground.

Mineral saturated water dripped from the ceilings of caves. Some of the carbonates precipitated out, leaving stalactites and stalagmites. (Simple mnemonic to remember which is which, stalactites hang tight to the “c”eiling, stalagmites are like mites on the “g”round.)

There are two well-known cave systems in the Black Hills, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. If you only have time or inclination to visit one, here’s a guide to help you choose. (TL;DR, it’s a tie.)

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Jewel Cave on a bright day. Photo from National Park Service

For more geology field trips, see Science field trip–North Cascades (Aug 2017) and Science field trip—Bay of Fundy (Jun 2012).

* * *

Dinosaur Park

Back in the city, we drove along Skyline Drive, a winding road that leads out of the city. At the top of the hill is a large parking lot and gift shop. Across the road is a staircase that leads to Dinosaur Park. There are six life-size, but not realistically shaped, concrete dinosaur sculptures painted in garish green and white. The whole site was built in the 1930s as a WPA project. There are spectacular views of the city, and it’s free, so it is worth spending an hour to visit.

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A brontosaurus or something like it

SDSMT campus

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology has a Geology Museum that has an excellent collection of fossils, many found at the Badlands. You can take a virtual tour here.

SDSMT also has a well equipped Industrial Engineering lab. Stuart Kellogg, the department chair, was nice enough to give me a tour. The lab includes 3D printers, laser engravers, and CNC machines.

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A nearly complete brontothere; IE department video on YouTube

Finally, no trip to an engineering college campus is complete until you find the bent monument that honors the local Tau Beta Pi chapter.

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Get bent. Photo by Susan Wolcott

[Update: Rearranged the sections to be in geologic chronological order. Moved some of the text to related Aug 2017 blog post.]

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RapidCity

Main Street Square at night with Hotel Alex Johnson in background

[Note: This entry was posted on June 5, 2019. It is backdated to keep it in chronological order.]

by George Taniwaki

My wife, Sue, was a member of an advisory committee for the Department of Industrial Engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) in Rapid City. On her last meeting in October, I tagged along for a quick vacation.

I’ve been to Rapid City before, in 1967, back in the days when every summer my father would pack all of us into a car without air conditioning and drive us to a cheap motel close to a fossil bed in the western U.S. where he would go ask a rancher for permission to prospect. More on the geology of western South Dakota in a separate Oct 2018 blog entry.

I’m looking forward to see Rapid City again after a 51 year absence. I’ll include a few pictures from my childhood trip in this blog entry.

Hotel Alex Johnson

Unlike my childhood trip, Sue and I flew to Rapid City and stayed at the fanciest hotel in town, the Hotel Alex Johnson (see picture at top). It was built in 1927  and is the tallest building in town. It has been renovated, though the elevators are still small and slow. The rooms are nice and there are great panoramic views from the bar on the top floor. Be sure to buy Chubby Chipmunk chocolates from the store in the lobby.

Main Street Square

The Main Street Square is cater-corner from the hotel. On the day we arrived the roads were blocked off and there was an outdoor beer festival in progress. Rapid City must consist of optimistic planners and hardy folks since it is mid-October and snow was in the forecast. Brrr.

Mt. Rushmore

It was unusually cloudy and snowy the week we were in Rapid City. We drove into the Black Hills and stopped at the Mt. Rushmore visitor center. But we were disappointed that we could not see the monument through the fog.

Despite the fog, I was excited to learn that the Mt. Rushmore sculpture has a trail and tramway that was used to haul workers and equipment to the top. But I was disappointed again when I was told that you cannot climb the mountain. Darn. I really wanted to slide down Washington’s chest to re-enact the famous scene from North by Northwest.

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I’m more excited to (not) see Mt. Rushmore as an adult

Crazy Horse Memorial

My family stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial in 1967. It had already been under construction for 20 years. But without stable funding there was very little progress. It was just a large rock with a hole. It was so unremarkable that my dad, who photographed everything, did not take a picture of it.

Today, the sculpture actually looks like a person, so I am told, which has greatly improved fund raising efforts. But unfortunately, it was so foggy today that we didn’t bother going.

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Crazy Horse Memorial circa 1977, ten years after my family visited it, still not a lot of progress

Dahl’s Chainsaw Art

As you approach Mt. Rushmore, there is a small town called Keystone. It has a full-time population of about 300 and consists of a long string of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Most of them having at least one American flag in front. Yet one store stands out. You must stop at Dahl’s and check out the fantastic carved bears, eagles, and signs.

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Sue getting photobombed by artist Jarrett Dahl

Rushmore Borglum Story

Across the parking lot from Dahl’s is the Rushmore Borglum Story, a small museum dedicated to the sculptor Gutzon Borglum. It is only open in the summer, so we weren’t able to visit.

Reptile Gardens

Driving back into town, we passed by Reptile Gardens and had to pull in. As a child I saw a stuntman wrestle an alligator, then show off his trained cockatoos, and finally help us kids ride Aldabra tortoises. What a guy!

They still have snapping alligators, poisonous snakes, exotic birds, and giant tortoises at Reptile Gardens. But today the alligator show no longer includes wrestling and kids can’t sit on the tortoises. Oh well, that’s probably for the best. As a child, I felt bad for the captive animals.

Incredibly, I learned that at least one of the tortoises is a hundred years old, so may have been around the last time I was here. I wonder if they remember me.

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Fun at Reptile Gardens in 1967

Wall Drug

For miles around the city of Wall, you see the signs telling you how close you are to free ice water, fresh donuts, and western knick knacks. Welcome to Wall Drug Store, quite possibly the most famous family store in America.

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Wall Drug sign in France;  A jackalope statue (not to scale); Four presidents not obscured by fog

Minuteman Missile National Historic Museum

Just east of Wall Drug is a national park that tells the history of the Cold War. The park consists of three former missile installations along I-90. This museum did not exist when my family came to Rapid City in 1967. The concrete hardened missile silos were active then and were considered secret military sites. But if they were open to the public I’m sure my father would have insisted we see them.

People my age will remember that there were once over 10,000 nuclear warheads loaded on Minuteman missiles scattered around the U.S., ready to launch at a moment’s notice. There were another 20,00 warheads in storage, just in case things got serious. Each warhead was between 20 to 200 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.

The silos were not randomly scattered. They were clustered, with one set running north from Colorado (where I grew up), Nebraska, South Dakota, to North Dakota. Knowing the world could end any minute made for some dark humor as captured below.

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Morbid mementos from the front lines of the Cold War

Well, that’s it for the non-geology part of the trip. In part 2 of this blog entry, I describe the earth activity that formed Devil’s Tower, Jewel Cave, and the Badlands. I also visit the SDSMT campus and tour its Geology Museum.

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Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds, photo from American Southwest

[Note: This entry was posted on Aug 22, 2019. It is backdated to keep it in chronological order.]

by George Taniwaki

While traveling to eastern Oregon to see the total solar eclipse (Real Numeracy Aug 2017), Sue and I also checked out some science under our feet, learning about the Cenozoic era. That’s the current geologic era, the past 65 million years since the dinosaurs became extinct and mammals and birds became plentiful.

Our solar system is over 4,800 million years old, so the Cenozoic era covers less than 1.5% of the total geologic history of the earth. The Cenozoic era is divided into 3 periods which are divided into 7 epochs.

In this blog post I’ll cover the landmarks we visited in geologic timeline order. They are not in the order we visited them, and we did not visit all of these sites during a single trip.

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Geologic map of Washington State, Image from USGS

Paleocene—Volcanic ash at John Day

Driving south from the Columbia River along the John Day River, you will see well-defined stripes of gray, red, and yellow sandstones. The oldest of these sediments were laid down during the Paleocene epoch (not to be confused with the larger Paleogene period) 65 to 55 million years ago. The latest were laid down during the Miocene epoch 23 to 5 million years ago.

Large and small mammals, most now extinct, roamed the plains here. At different times, they included 3-toed horses, camels, elephants, sloths, oreodonts, and saber-toothed cats. You can see some great artist drawings here.

This was also a time of significant volcanic activity. Magma rising from the mantle circulated to the crust creating inclusions and volcanoes in a volcanic arc.

If you look closely at the layers of rocks along the John Day River, you will see interspersed are thin layers of harder volcanic ash and lava. By measuring the ratio of isotopes in the ash layer, one can date the eruption and thus the age of the fossils found in the layer. By comparing fossils in different layers, one can build a family tree of the species.

When the hard volcanic ash and lava erodes away, it exposes the softer sandstones below. Once exposed, wind and water carved the steep canyons you see, called badlands. To learn more about the fossils, volcanoes, and current wildlife of the region, stop at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center  at the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

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The Thomas Condon Visitor Center and a working lab, Photos from National Park Service

Eocene—Coal seams near Seattle

When plants, especially trees, fall into anoxic water, they are less likely to decay. If they remain undisturbed and are then covered by sediment, they will remain preserved even when the water recedes. Continued sedimentation creates high temperatures and pressures, slowly converting the plant material into peat, lignite, and finally to coal. There are two types of coal, bituminous, which is soft and tar-like, and anthracite, which is hard and shiny. Fossils and amber can often be found in all of these deposits.

In the Eocene epoch, about 55 to 35 million years ago, the earth was warmer than it is now. The area around what is now Seattle was above sea level and covered with forests, though the ground was swampy and muddy. These are the perfect conditions for creating coal seams. (For more, see Wenachee Valley College, Lecture 8.)

Commercial quantities of bituminous coal were first discovered east of Lake Washington in the 1860s (HistoryLink Jan 2003). Prospectors created both open pit and shaft mines throughout the region and used horse-drawn wagons and barges to cross the lake and haul the coal to the port in Seattle. Most of the coal was then carried by steamship to San Francisco. In 1870, a rail line was built from Newcastle going south around the lake to Seattle. This significantly reduced transport costs and coal production boomed. One hundred years later, the industry was in decline. The last mine closed by 1975.

The main road through the town of Newcastle, which is named after the coal mining town in England, is Coal Creek Pkwy. Coal Creek itself runs through Cougar Mountain Regional Park. And near the northwest edge of the park there is the Ford Slope coal mine exhibit. It’s worth a stop and only a few miles from my house.

There are more coal mines at Flaming Geyser State Park near the town of Black Diamond (which is another coal reference). Unfortunately, the park’s name is a lot more exciting than the park itself. There are no flames and no geysers. The name flaming geyser refers to vents in the mines to release water and methane (natural gas). The gas was flared off to prevent explosions. Today the vents are capped with concrete and there is not much to see here except an interpretive display.

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Miners at Cougar Mountain, photo from Museum of History and Industry; A nonflaming nongeyser, photo from Washington State Parks

Pleistocene—Cone shaped volcanoes

Nearly all the cone shaped volcanoes in the North Cascades were formed during the Pleistocene epoch, 2.5 million to 125,000 years ago. This includes the two most famous volcanoes in the range, both near the Washington-Oregon border.

At 4392m (14,410 ft), Mt. Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington and is visible from Seattle. Mt. Rainier National Park is big, but there are only two main roads, so can get congested in the summer.

The other, Mt. St. Helens, erupted on May 18, 1980. I remember watching the TV news in Denver that day. The north face of the mountain collapsed, creating a pyroclastic landslide that instantly killed thousands of trees along with lots of wildlife and 57 people. The landslide flooded Spirit Lake which caused a tsunami that overflowed onto the Toutle River.

The eruption ejected about 4 km3 of rock, dust, and ash into the air. The fallout caused heavy damage as up to 1m (3’) of abrasive dirt clogged streets, houses, cars, and farms in downwind communities. I also remember about 3 days later a layer of fine dust coating all the cars and windows in Denver, which is about 2,000km (1,200 miles) downwind from Mt. St. Helens.

Today the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a natural laboratory showing how an area changes after a volcanic eruption.

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Iconic view of conical Mt. Rainier from Green Lake Seattle, photo from Brian Overland; A conical Mt. St. Helens before the eruption, photo from USFS.

Pleistocene—Glacial moraine in my backyard

The Pleistocene epoch is also known as the ice age. Over the past 2.5 million years, the fluctuations of the earth’s temperature in the mid-latitudes were in a range nearer the freezing point of water, sometimes above and sometimes below. This caused the polar ice caps to repeatedly advance and recede. The ground in many parts of Washington and Oregon has been scoured and eroded by multiple passes of glaciers. (For more see Wenatchee Valley College, Lecture 2).

Glaciers are like very slow moving rivers. As they flow, they scour the soil and rocks and sometimes carry them downstream. The rocks become rounded, like river rocks and the soil is finely ground into rock flour. Deposits of this material are called moraines.

The current epoch, known as Holocene, is an interglacial period where the climate is slightly above the freezing point of water and the glaciers have mostly disappeared. There are only few glaciers left in Washington or Oregon, all high in the mountains. The North Cascade Glacier Climate Project has been collecting data on these glaciers since 2005.

However, evidence of past glaciation is all around. Just digging a simple hole in my backyard is a herculean task because the ground is so hard and rocky. However, the ground is not made of clay (phyllosilicates), instead it is rock flour made mostly of ground quartz.

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Rainier glacier, photo from NCGCP; Rocks and soil in my backyard

Holocene—Lava tubes at Mt. St. Helens

Sometimes the lava on the outside of a flow cools and hardens while the lava in the interior remains hot and continues to flow. This leaves a cavity called a lava tube. The most famous lava tubes are on the island of Hawai’i. But they can occur with any volcano, even on the Moon, Venus, or Mars.

In Washington, there is a lava tube, called Ape Cave, south of Mt. St. Helens. It was formed during our current epoch, called the Holocene, which started 12,000 years ago. The cave was probably created about 2000 years ago and is about 4 km (2.5 mile) long.

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Going bananas in Ape Cave, photo from Daily Nathan on Reddit

Holocene—Ice caves at Mt. Rainier

Glacier caves are formed when water flows through a glacier. The heat melts the ice, forming a cavity. The air acts as an insulator, keeping the cavity warmer than the surrounding ice. Eventually, the cavities merge, forming a system of caves. The caves are unstable and can quickly be created or destroyed as the glacier moves or collapses.

The Paradise Ice Caves at the base of Mt. Rainier were once a popular stop for tourists. They were first discovered in 1908. They disappeared in the 1940s and again in the 1990s due to glacial recession. Because of global warming, it is believed that the caves are unlikely to return again until the next cooling trend.

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A lone ranger in Paradise Cave circa 1958, photo from National Park Service

Holocene—Nike Missile Site

Back at the top of Cougar Mountain (about 2 miles east from the Ford Slope coal mine) the there are remains of a control site and launch silo that were part of the Nike anti-aircraft missile program, built in the 1950s during the cold war. It is one of several launch sites in and around Seattle. It was dismantled in the 1970s and there isn’t much left to see.

This is obviously not a geological landmark. But it is still worth a visit to contemplate that humans have the ability to cause the end of life on Earth as we know it.

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Sign post to the end of days, Photo from Beautiful Washington

For more geology field trips, see Science field trip–Northern plains (Oct 2018) and Science field trip—Bay of Fundy (Jun 2012).

by George Taniwaki

I just returned from a short trip to New York. I have been to the city many times, but not recently. So I took time to go to places that are new since my last visit in 2009.

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

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Immersion room, courtesy Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

As a software program manager, the Cooper Hewitt is one of my favorite museums. It recently completed a major renovation (Press Release, Dec 2014). I was looking forward to seeing the redesigned design museum and was not disappointed.

Upon entering the museum, each visitor is given a stylus and a code number. The stylus is a bit bulky but is rugged. The pointed end can be used with large touchscreen monitors (probably Microsoft PixelSense devices since the newer Surface Hub wasn’t released until after the museum opened) scattered around some rooms. Visitors can select images, write text, and draw images on the touchscreens. Visitors can tap the other end of the stylus to the touchscreens to save their work. They can also tap on exhibit signs to save them and get more information for later.

On the second floor is a cubical Immersion Room that contains another large touchscreen monitor. On this one, visitors can select wallcovering patterns from the Cooper Hewitt collection or design their own using the pen. They can save their patterns and project them on the walls of the room. It is a very enjoyable experience to see your pattern fill the room (see photo above).

After your visit, you can go to the Cooper Hewitt website, create an account, enter your code, and review your visit and further explore exhibits that interested you. If you are a developer or tinkerer, check out the Toys section to use the API and to access anonymized visitor data.

Museum of Modern Art

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Crossroads (promotional still) 1976, Courtesy Connor Family Trust

The Museum of Modern Art is not new yet. However, since my last visit, MoMA has announced a major expansion. An increase of 4,600 sq. m (50,000 sq. ft) will add about 17%  of new space the the already large museum. Construction has started, though it hasn’t caused any closure of the current space for now.

The addition is expected to be well integrated with the existing museum. Construction will take over four years to complete (Curbed New York, Jan 2016).

I saw a special exhibit on Bruce Conner (1933-2008) an avant garde painter, sculptor, photographer, and film maker (see photo). The show was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In an ironic twist, I was unable to visit the newly remodeled SFMoMA while I was in SF in April since it was still closed for renovation (see SF Gate, May 2016).

The expansion of MoMA required the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, which was a lovely bronze-clad building next door to it. (I saw a wonderful special exhibit on quilts during my last visit to New York.) The building is already gone and is now just a hole in the ground. The museum has moved to Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets.  I didn’t have time to visit it.

9/11 Memorial & Museum

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The north fountain with white rose. Photo by George Taniwaki

The National September 11 Memorial opened in 2014. It honors the victims killed in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania during of the awful attacks in September, 2001 as well as the people killed in the earlier attack on the World Trade Center in February, 1993.

The memorial consists of two square fountains, each encompassing the footprint of one of the towers. The fountains are surrounded by bronze panels with the names of each victim cut into them. A white rose is placed by each name on that person’s birthday (see photo). Water falls about 10 m (30 ft) into a reflecting pool. From there, it falls into a square hole so deep you cannot see the bottom. The sound of rushing water is emitted from the hole. The scale of the fountains is moving. Even on a busy summer weekend when thousands of tourists are viewing the memorial, there is plenty of space to stand and contemplate.

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View from the balcony entering the museum. Photo by George Taniwaki

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View of quote from stairs entering the museum. Photo by George Taniwaki

The 9/11 museum is also enormous and also within the footprint of the towers. The main floor is under the fountain about 18m (60ft) below ground. From the balcony you can see the slurry wall that holds back the Hudson River and a giant remnant of a column from the World Trade Center marked with spray paint (see photo).

An escalator takes you past a quote translated from Virgil’s Aeneid, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” (see photo). The quote is surrounded by 2,983 watercolor paintings, one for each victim, by Spencer Finch recalling the shade of blue of the sky on the morning of 9/11.

Overall, the museum does a good job of explaining the events leading to the attack and the recovery effort afterwards. One can imagine the difficult task of presenting an evenhanded account in the face of enormous pressure from victim families, first responders, government agencies, donors, and politicians. Nearly every artifact and photo is heavily researched and annotated, which is somewhat chilling. One gets a sense of how invested the survivors are in preserving the memories of the loved ones lost in the attacks.

As a side note, when viewed in context, the use of the Virgil quote above is rather controversial. The “you” refers to the attackers, not the victims, giving it a very different meaning than what was intended (NY Times, Apr 2011). Yet the alternate interpretation is also true. Because of the horror they caused, we will not forget the attackers either.

The Cloisters

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A garden in the Cloisters. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Panoramic view of the Hudson River and New Jersey. Photo by George Taniwaki

The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It houses artwork and architectural fragments from twelfth to fifteenth century Europe. The building is shaped like a medieval cloister and is located at the top of a hill in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan (see photos).

I’m not a big fan of art from this era, so have never bothered to go all the way up to the Cloisters. But after visiting Florence a few years ago I decided I should make the journey. It was well worth it. I took the subway and walked up the hill. The building is imposing.  The gardens are tranquil and beautiful. And seeing the historical transition in painting from flat to perspective is fascinating.

Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

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Irises in bloom. Courtesy of Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

On my way to the Cloisters, I accidentally missed my stop. Rather than wait for a train the other direction, I decided to walk back. On a busy street filled with businesses I suddenly passed by a small garden and walked in. It turns out it was part of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum. Opened in 1916, the museum is not very large, but is well maintained and reveals some of the history of Manhattan beginning with the Revolutionary War.

Final Notes

When visiting a city, I rarely buy City Pass tickets or their equivalents. The list of venues is fixed and limited. Instead, I just buy tickets in advance directly from each museum I visit. In fact, I just go to each museum first, checked out how long the line is, and if it is too long, then use my phone to buy tickets online. Museums with long lines and that lack online ticket sales don’t get my business.

To get around a strange town, I need more than a map. I need info on the best ways to get around by walking, biking, using public transit, or hailing Uber. Also, I want to compare estimated travel times and costs for each option. I have found two excellent apps to help. They are CityMapper and Transit, both available for iPhone and Android.

Sue and I visited Paris recently and had a wonderful time (see a Mar 2011 blog post about my visit to the Musée Carnavalet.).

One thing that we found disconcerting was the prevalence of scam artists around the city. Unfortunately, although we took lots of pictures of the city, we failed to take any of these people.

The door blocking musicians

Our first experience with a scam artist was riding the train from the airport to the city center. At a stop after the airport, a young man, who from his complexion I assume to be North African, stepped on the train with a portable amplifier/synthesizer. He blocked the exit door of the train and began singing. When the train pulled to the next stop, he stopped singing and held a tip cup as people moved on or off the train. When the train started moving again, he started singing again. We saw musicians nearly every day while riding the Metro. Unlike the U.S. the musicians were always on the trains, never in the stations. Also, unlike the street musicians I see in the U.S., these people were uniformly untalented.

The school for the deaf

Our second experience occurred a few minutes later as we exited the airport train at Gare du Nord. It is a beautiful building. In front of the station are throngs of teenage girls, all of them deaf (or so they mime), and all of them with long dark hair and brown eyes. I presume they are also North African. They each have a clipboard with note, in English, asking for a donation for their school. They are very persistent, like flies at a picnic. We saw these deaf girls outside all the Metro stations nearest tourist sites and near the Eiffel Tower.

The found ring

Apparently, lots of men drop their gold wedding bands on the ground near museums in Paris. Luckily, there is always a nice gentleman who speaks broken English who will pick it up and ask you if it is yours. When you say “no”, he will ask if you want to buy it and then point to the 14K mark inside the band. Too bad the ring is made of brass. A version of this scam involving a woman is described here.

The woven bracelet

After walking past the hoard of deaf girls at the upper station for the Montmartre funicular , I started walking down the steps. On the way down, I encountered a group of young men who surround me. They are all black, possibly immigrants from West Africa. One of them places a string loop around my wrist and begins weaving it. I get bored with his spiel and move on. The weaver yells down the hill and a second group of young men surround me again and repeat the process. I’m intrigued, but am in a hurry and break away from them. Naturally, they are disappointed that I didn’t stick around to buy a souvenir of my visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Trinket dealers

As you walk toward the Eiffel Tower, there are many people selling souvenirs and toys. There are some selling identical Eiffel Tower key chains (always 12 for 5 Euros) and Eiffel Tower replicas (in several sizes up to a foot tall). Others sell identical wind-up fuzzy dogs. And a final group sells wooden trains with carved letters that you can use to spell your name, or “P-A-R-I-S” or “E-I-F-F-E-L T-O-W-E-R.” Nearly all of the vendors were young men and appeared to be either black or North African.

What’s going on?

I thought it was odd that so many scam artists would use identical techniques. Here are a few ideas that popped into my head.

  1. These people are all copying each other because these particular scams have proven to be the money makers. You wouldn’t want to copy a scam that is inefficient.
  2. The prevalence of North African and West African immigrants in these scams indicates how hard it is for these people to find regular employment in the French economy. Discrimination forces immigrants and their descendants to live in the margins of society.
  3. The tolerance of the French police to these scammers, who prey on tourists and ply their trade in busy public places in broad daylight, indicates a tacit admission by the government that there are no other jobs for these people and to restrict their activities could lead to violent social unrest. Recall the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois and other banlieues in 2005.
  4. Some scams, like the musicians are probably independently operated. But others, like the sales of identical toys, and the soliciting for the deaf girl school, indicate that someone may be controlling access to the goods, the forms, and maybe even the prime street locations. These may be pyramid schemes in which the vendors are paying a cut to someone above. These street scam artists may be victimizing tourists. But they may be victims themselves.
  5. The girls with the clipboards ask you to complete the “donation” form because this is an easy way for the scam operator to ensure each girl reaches her quota and ensure she isn’t stealing any of the funds.

There’s a museum on every street corner in Paris. I’m exaggerating, but it sure feels that way. On Sunday, I took a walking tour of the Marais district of Paris and made a stop at the Musée Carnavalet. Despite the crowded streets, there were only a few visitors in the museum; apparently most people in the Marais district were busy shopping or eating.

The Carnavalet Museum features artwork and furniture that covers the history of Paris. It is housed in two old mansions connected by a corridor on the second floor. Each mansion has a courtyard with a garden, although at this time of year the gardens weren’t on display. The museum is free and photography is allowed.

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A rare prerevolutionary statue of Louis XVI in entry courtyard. Photo by George Taniwaki

Each room covers a single time period, but the rooms are not in chronological order. The labels are in French only. It’s all quite confusing unless you bring a guidebook with you. I used Rick Steves’ Paris 2011.

Just for fun, I took a few panorama shots using my iPhone. They are stitched together using Autostitch, an app featured in a Feb 2010 blog post.

Carnavalet1

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90 degree panorama of first floor staircase. Photo by George Taniwaki

Carnavalet2

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180 degree panorama of mural above staircase. Photo by George Taniwaki

I’ll say one thing about France. There sure were a lot of wars there from 1789 to 1945.