Friday, July 19, 2013

The Yeh Family in Washington DC, Day 2

We began the day at the Smithsonian's most popular museum, the National Air and Space Museum.  Airplanes and rockets--what more could someone want?  (Sadly, they still haven't found a way to justify an exhibit on giant fighting robots)

The Air and Space Museum is always inspiring; as you walk through the museum, you go from the primitive gliders and attempts to fly from the turn of the 20th Century, all the way to the giant rockets that carried man to the moon, all in the span of minutes.

First flight took place in 1903; man landed on the moon in 1969.  So in 66 years, we went from our first 12-second foray into the sky to reaching another world.  Seems insane, right?  But you can apply the same principle to computers.

66 years ago, it was 1947.  Computers was gigantic monstrosities the size of a house, running on relays, with less computing power than your average microwave today.  Imagine going to an average person in 1947, and telling them that in 66 years, they would have access to all the world's information, including color television, on a device they could keep in their pocket.  "Amazing," they'd think.  Then add that the device would be so cheap that schoolchildren would carry them around, and they'd marvel at the wonderful world of the future.  Finally, tell them that the hottest application for these incredible devices was to allow people to send self-destructing photos of their genitalia to each other.  And then their head would explode.

Some of the highlights of the museum:
  • Seeing the backup mirror for the Hubble telescope
  • Marveling at the incredible level of detail in the deep field photos--it's hard to believe that so many of those little pin pricks of light in the sky are entire galaxies
  • Checking out actual nuclear missiles (sans warheads, of course)
  • Being able to see the re-entry battered spacecraft that carried John Glenn into orbit and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins* to the moon
 * Poor Michael Collins.  Everyone always forgets about him, or thinks he was that guy Liam Neeson played in a movie.  But I was surprised and entertained to learn that among other things, after leaving the service, he became the director of the National Air and Space Museum.  I probably would have abused the position by commissioning an exhibit: "Why staying in the Command Module was much cooler than walking on that lousy old moon."

To avoid the hassle of leaving and then going through security a second time to get back in, we ate lunch at the museum, which features the world's most expensive McDonald's.  I'll forgo comment on the food other than to note that Marissa had a menu item I'd never seen before, the Southern-style Chicken Sandwich, the McDonald's version of the classic Chik-fil-A sandwich.  Not bad, and homophobia-free!

Another digression: My strategy for maintaining my low-carb diet and saving a few bucks on the trip relies heavily on what I consider a near-perfect food for such expeditions: Justin's nut butter packets. Justin's, which I first encountered during my stay at the Unreasonable Institute, makes the world's best nut butters.  In addition to their standard jars, they also make 1.15 ounce foil packets, which fit easily in your pocket, are easy to open and use, and keep for years.  I buy up their Maple Almond Butter, Chocolate Almond Butter, Chocolate Hazelnut Butter, Honey Almond Butter, and Honey Peanut Butter whenever they go on sale.  Each day during the trip, I eat several packets, dipping in whenever I can't find appropriate food in a restaurant, or to stave off hunger pains.*

* I don't have any business relationship with Justin's, and am not a paid endorser, but I would be happy to accept an endorsement deal and/or free product!  Hopefully they've got an alert set up, and spot this blog post!

In the afternoon, we left the Air and Space Museum and went next door to the National Museum of the American Indian.  Opened in 2004, the NMAI is one of the newest museums in the Smithsonian family, and even after 9 years, it still looks brand-spanking new.  It's a striking building with an amazing stairway that takes you between the four floors:

I freely admit that I don't have that much inherent interest in Native Americans, but since Alisha has Taino heritage (the Tainos were the native inhabitants of Puerto Rico; they were the first people oppressed and enslaved by Columbus), it's an important subject for her and the kids.

The museum's collection includes over 800,000 items, and is pretty darn amazing.  Kids will especially like the activity center, which allows kids to learn about daily life as a Native American by going from activity station to station, collecting stamps in a "passport" along the way.  Of course, Jason and many of the other boys simply ran around collecting stamps without actually doing the activities, but I think they learned by osmosis.

We ate an early dinner in the Mitsitam Cafe, which is a high-end museum eatery, similar to the excellent (if pricey) food at the California Academy of Sciences, but based on Native American cuisines.  We had seared Buffalo steak, cedar planked salmon, spicy chicken and Buffalo tacos, and of course, that most authentic of native foods, chicken fingers and french fries.  Alisha and the kids also had fry bread and coconut passionfruit flan for dessert.  The food was quite good, though it will end up being our most expensive meal of the trip!

After a brief rest in our hotel room, we headed out to a walking tour of the landmarks via Free Tours by Foot.  My awesome travel agent, Pam Hill, suggested the tour, which is a name-your-price tour, where you pay after the tour is over.

Here are the places we visited, along with some highlights and fun facts:

Washington Monument:

  • The initial fundraising effort for the monument forbade any donations over $1.  After collecting $27,000, construction was suspended for lack of funds.  Oh well, at least it's better than calling it the Quicken Loans Washington Monument.
 World War II Memorial:
  • When veterans were presented with the memorial, they thought that something was missing.  At their insistence, "Kilroy was here" graffiti was carved into the marble of the monument.
  • Each morning, the newest Marine Corps recruits who jog by the memorial are forced to polish the Marine Corps seal, keeping it nice and shiny.

Vietnam War Memorial:
  • Every night, the offerings that people leave at the wall are collected and stored in an archive, rather than being thrown away.  These are often quite moving.

Korean War Memorial
  • On the reflecting wall, the image of the German Shepherd has been petted so much that the stone is actually discolored
  • I happened to notice that there are several floral bouquets that are replaced every day.  They are paid for by various organizations in South Korea, to express their eternal gratitude for the service of the Korean War veterans who defended their country.
Lincoln Memorial
  • When they were carving the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the stonemasons misspelled the word "FUTURE" as "EUTURE".  They filled in the extra space with putty, but the typo is still visible.
 Two final points:

1) I think it's amazing that the National Mall is taken over every night by people playing kickball and softball.  Apparently they switch to football and soccer in the Fall.  I think this is uniquely American to take the space between our two most sacred monuments (Washington and Lincoln) and open it up to the people.  Can you imagine the public playing cricket on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, roller hockey in the Kremlin, or badminton in the Forbidden City?  U-S-A! U-S-A!

2) Last night was the first time any members of the Yeh family ever saw fireflies, or as they call them in the South, lightning bugs.

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