Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dinosaur Park, Laurel, Maryland

Dinosaur Park is a little gem hidden just off Route 1 in southern Laurel, Maryland. A small mound of rock juts out from the ground, seemingly unremarkable, except for the age of the rock. It dates back 115 million years to when the area was a swamp. The rock itself was the floor of the swamp. A lot of flora and fauna was caught in the muddy bottom. That mud turned to rock and lasted to this day. Back in the mid-1800s (AD), the area was mined for iron ore. Some miners found dinosaur bones and other fossils, drawing the interest of geologists and paleontologists. The craze died down when the iron ore industry died out (it's always easier when someone else does your digging!). Interest revived in the 1980s and in 2009 local government protected the area from being developed and from unrestricted collectors. The area is called Dinosaur Park and is open on the first and third Saturdays of the month from noon to 4 p.m.

View from the street is not so impressive

In case you need the address!

We went on the first Saturday in July, which was pretty hot. The park naturally doesn't have air conditioning but Lucy found a shady spot under the information signs.

Lucy shelters underneath...

...Jacob's reading!

Jacob read about Astrodon johnstoni, the official Maryland state dinosaur. Teeth and bones from johnstoni were found here, including a leg bone that was the length of the sign! The dinosaur was named "Astrodon" by Christopher Johnston, a member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences in the late 1800s. He chose the name because the teeth found had a star pattern in their cross section. "johnstoni" was added later to recognize his contribution.

Maryland's official dinosaur

We started our exploration of the site with a short lecture from one of the scientists about the history of the area. She showed us some samples of lignite (fossilized wood) and ore rock.

Jacob examines the lignite

A rock with fossil imprints (at least according to the scientist)

After a quick list of things not to do (no digging or climbing--the area is strictly for discovery by picking things up), we moved inside the gates. We had another explanation of the prehistoric environment. The scientist there showed us the various fossils we might find.

Entering the dig!

Scientist with samples

Actual fossils in the case and a cast of a dino skull

With a few more warnings, we were let loose on the hill. We explored all over the hill, often finding rocks that looked like they might be fossils. As soon as we'd ask one of the scientists (in green vests), they'd check it and say, "Well, that's a cool rock but not a fossil." Lucy and Jacob were very curious and checked all over. Finally, Lucy hit pay dirt--a fossilized redwood cone!

Looking in the corner

Looking near the hillside

Lucy makes a discovery!

Lucy's fossil

The fellow took Lucy's name and my contact information and put the fossil in a ziplock bag. It will be taken to the main collection, examined, and cataloged. Lucy was very excited and Jacob was very jealous. The weather soon got too hot for us and we went to Chick-fil-A for a congratulatory snack.

Ice cream for Lucy, cookie for Jacob, lemonade for Daddy

Visiting Dinosaur Park is a fun (and free) way to spend an afternoon. We recommend it!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Maple Lawn Street Festival 2014

As proof that we are taking advantage of all that goes around us back here in the USA, we'll have a couple of posts this week of summer activities we've already done. First, we went with some friends to the Maple Lawn Street Festival in early July. The festival was the typical street festival. Various businesses, volunteer organizations, politicians, and restaurants had booths along the road selling their wares. We saw Mary Kay and Chick-fil-A and the Howard County Republicans and the Knights of Columbus and etc. etc. The streets weren't filled yet because we came relatively early (trying to get it in before bedtime--the festival ran from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., with fireworks at 9:30).

One side of the street

The other end of the other side of the street

A stage with a live band sat right in the middle of the festival. The band was okay but too loud for Jacob and Lucy. We didn't get too close. I admired the Atari t-shirt from afar.

The stage

We were hungry for dinner and tried a bite here and a bite there. One restaurant was giving out chips and salsa for free, so we sampled that. Another was selling corn dogs, paella, and samosas. Lucy wanted a corn dog but became less enthusiastic about it (yet another disappointing American sausage). Jacob had some paella which he shared with everyone; Mommy had a chicken samosa. They were all delicious but not quite a full meal.

At this point, I think Lucy was just unhappy to have her picture taken

We also ate popcorn from a credit union's stand and Belgian waffles from a cart on the street. The waffle was yummy but not quite enough. Jacob later complained that he wanted a regular dinner where we sat down and ate. I have to admit I did eat some leftovers after we got home, so I should have had more.

Jacob and Lucy wanted balloon animals. We stopped at the booth and got tickets for them. Lucy asked for a dog. The fellow asked what color and she said blue. When it was Jacob's turn, he also asked for a dog though he chose pink. Dark pink. Don't judge!

Two balloon guys and two customers

We didn't stay for the fireworks (which were long past bedtime) but had a good time seeing people wandering around and enjoying a summer evening.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Review: Deck Z The Titanic by Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon

Deck Z The Titanic by Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon

How could the Titanic disaster be any worse? Naturally, add zombies to the ship! That's the idea behind Deck Z, a book that imagines a zombie outbreak on the only voyage of the doomed ship.

The story starts with a modern day submarine exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. One passenger has been collecting items and they come across a strange metal tube that he takes. The story then flips back to the German mountain country in 1912, where an isolated scientist named Weiss is working on a plague cure. He has returned from China where he assisted in quelling a new, virulent plague. As that was wrapping up, rumors of another plague that had its victims biting people drew him to a small village. He found two infected brothers being treated by the local witch doctor. She wears a lot of clothing to protect herself but winds up bitten during Weiss's visit. Weiss has the brothers killed and burned; the witch doctor volunteers to return to Germany with him to try and find a cure. She soon turns rabid and zombie-like and he keeps her carefully sealed up.

In his isolated mountain lab, he discovers a sack of liquid in the lady's brain. He extracts the liquid which is so toxic that he calls it, "The Toxic." He goes down the mountain to report his findings. When he gets back, he realizes someone has been there. He suspects the government will use the Toxic as a weapon, burns down his lab, takes the metal tube of Toxic, and flees to America. The German government is naturally unhappy about this plan and sends agents after him. Weiss sneaks over to England and gets a ticket for the biggest boat heading to America--The Titanic. A German agent catches up with him and eventually confronts him below decks. To make sure the agent has recovered the right vial, he infects someone on board. Things get out of hand after that. Luckily the iceberg hits just before the zombies completely take over the ship.

The character interactions on the boat are interesting. There's a blend of characters historical (the captain, the band leader, one of the owners) and ahistorical (the German, the agent, a plucky 10-year old girl) who are all interesting. I wish the book had some notes about the historical characters and how true to life they were. Reading about them made me want to know more.

The mystery about where the agent is hiding on the boat and the whole mechanics of fighting the zombies on the Titanic were a bit less interesting. After the interesting set up, the story did turn into the typical run-fight-hide and try-to-outsmart story that has been done many times before. The framing story in modern day provides a typical horror ending that isn't as satisfying as the end of the ship-sinking story.

The book is a mixed bag of good and bad parts. I do wish I knew more about the actual history of the people on board (a biography of the band leader would be interesting if this book is accurate), but not enough to add more books to my unending list of "I want to get to that someday."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Notre-Dame Basilica, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

The first Christian church in Boulogne-sur-Mer was probably established when the area was a 5th century Roman port town. Legend has it a statue of the Virgin Mary washed up on the shore in the seventh century. One of the local abbeys became known as Notre-Dame and contained images of Our Lady in a small boat guided by two angels, either inspiring or inspired by the legend. A new church was built in the middle ages. The French Revolution brought the closure of the abbey and the destruction of the statue. Eventually, the building was destroyed too. Father Haffreingue, a self-taught architect, began the current church in 1827. The design is a bit haphazard--as money came in a significantly longer nave was added to the design.

Notre-Dame, Boulogne-sur-Mer


Central altar

The dome at the middle is rather striking for its height (100 meters) and the amount of light it lets in.


The area under the dome has several arches that were rebuilt in 1921 to reinforce the dome's support, which probably helped the church survive bombings in World War II.

Rebuilt arches

At the back is a clear reference to the Our Lady of the Sea statue. In the nave I also ran across something that they must use for processions or parades, also in the same theme.

A nice representation of the legend

Not as nice but definitely more portable

A large altar to the Sacred Heart is in the northern transept. Nearby is a more colorful altar donated in 1866 by Prince Torlonia.

Altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Torlonia altar

Other decorations include a large wooden statue of King David and an amazing pulpit from another church in town.

King David by Buisine


Back of the pulpit

Sadly, the crypt was closed for restoration. It has columns dating back to the 11th century.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

Boulogne-sur-Mer in France is a port town on the English Channel. It was the main port to Britain for the Romans, originally founded by Julius Caesar for his invasion of the islands in 55 and 54 BC. The medieval walls stand on the stones laid by the Romans two thousand years ago.

The walls of the city

Roman rubble from the late 200s

The walls have four gates. We entered town near the church and the medieval castle.

City gate

The gate from inside

The castle dates from the 13th century and is now home to a fine museum. The children weren't up for a museum, so we had a picnic lunch down by the castle moat.

Approaching the castle from inside the city

The castle courtyard (not busy on a Saturday morning)

More of the courtyard

The moat as seen from the causeway to the castle

Moat's eye view of castle, causeway, and Notre-Dame Basilica

After lunch, we fed some crumbs to the fish in the moat, who were immensely entertaining to Jacob and Lucy. We were surprised to see a moat-level entrance to the castle which was no longer in use. We couldn't figure out the value, other than convenience for workers, of a downstairs exit.

Doors in the causeway supports

View through the doors--with one long plank we could have got into the museum for free!

We also saw a nice fountain and some fun buildings on our wanderings.


A sharp building

Following in Caesar's footsteps, Napoleon planned to invade England from here, but it didn't happen. The house where he stayed is still extant and a memorial to the Grand Army is near the town square, but we never made it that far into town. It probably would have been easy to find but we were on our way to the ferry in Calais and didn't have enough time to explore further.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Asterix and Cleopatra by R. Goscinny et al.

Asterix and Cleopatra by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Julius Caesar, while hanging out with Cleopatra, makes fun of Egypt's has-been status as a great empire. Sure, they built the pyramids, but that was thousands of years ago...what have they done lately? Cleopatra defiantly claims they can build a palace to Caesar in Alexandria in three months. Caesar will acknowledge Egpyt's greatness if she can pull it off. She summons the best architect of Alexandria, Edifis, for the job. He knows he'll need magical powers to pull it off, but he knows this druid in Gaul. After a quick visit to Asterix's village, Edifis recruits village druid and potion mixer extraordinaire Getafix to help out. Naturally, Asterix and Obelix tag along for the adventure. Will they be able to build a palace or will they be fed to the Nile crocodiles?

This is another fun adventure. They hit all the highlights of Egypt--the pyramids, slaves building things, the Sphinx, mummies, and the immortal beauty of Cleopatra's nose. Recommended.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Beningbrough Hall and Gardens--Hall Interior

After seeing the outside of the hall, let's go in and see the Italian Baroque stylings of the interior. The front entrance leads into the Great Hall, a two-story room that displays the family's wealth and taste.

Great Hall seen from above

Italian fireplace (you can tell because that's a bust of the Pope on top!)

The bust over the fireplace is Pope Clement XIV, brought to the house by the Earle family in the late 1700s after they visited Rome and the pope gave the then-pregnant Mrs. Earle special permission to stay in a convent.

On our visit, the hall had some special exhibits scattered throughout commemorating the World War II use of the house as an RAF bivouac.

WW II-era desk set-up

WW II motorcycle

The motorcycle is here because of a story about the house. The military put a bar in one corner of the house. When the bar was opened, the soldiers established a challenge that whoever could run up the grand staircase and come down the far staircase and make it back to the bar first received a free pint. One lad used a motorcycle to win the race!

Downstairs also features a large Drawing Room with some interesting furnishings.

Drawing Room

Oriental screen--click to enlarge

Fancy tea box

Upstairs has more bedrooms and an extensive exhibit of portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. Being a family-friendly house, the exhibit includes interactive art activities for the children. Jacob and Lucy planned painting seating arrangements, repaired sculpted noses, and put us into a portrait!

Jacob selects the proper color palette and arrangement

Nose job station

A sweet family portrait

The computer added in Lucy and me but not very well

The house includes a large number of sculptures scattered all over, another bit of the Italian Baroque influence.

James Cook

Isaac Ware

Not sure about this one

Nor about this one

We went down the servants' stairs, which was a tight fit. I doubt the motorcycle went down here. Back on the ground floor, we saw the Smoking Room, where the gentry would relax.

Servants' Stairs

Smoking Room

Fancy cabinet in the Smoking Room

We enjoyed visiting Beningbrough Hall, especially since we saw more than the playground and tea shop!