cities. physics. food. environment. fatherhood.
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Posts from — January 2009

The Inauguration

Tuesday, I joined the 1.8 million others on the Mall to watch the inauguration. I suppose I had underestimated just how important this event would be to the million or so people who got to the mall before I did. I had a good experience, and in retrospect a series of nearly random decisions that we made all turned out to be the right decisions.

A friend, in town and staying with us for the inauguration, and I left the house at 7 in the morning, somehow thinking that would be early enough. The station platform at the Brookland Metro was crowded when we arrived, and the inbound train that arrived was so full that only a handful more could board. We instead rode outbound one stop, thinking that either we’d catch a slightly less full train, or could get on one of the special presidential bus routes. Miraculously, there was just enough space for us on the next inbound train, which otherwise looked as crowded as the first.

We managed to meet a bunch of my friend’s friends downtown, at their hotel, at 8. We were north of the mall. Since all of the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House was walled off, we had to choose a route south.  Among the many roads closed to motor traffic that day was 395, the freeway in a tunnel that goes under the Capitol reflecting pool. It was open as a pedestrian route, and in part because of the novelty of walking it, that’s were we went. Later, we heard that the handful of crossovers through the parade route became impossibly backed up. We entered at about 3rd and G NW and exited at E Street SW. We made our way along E, then up 7th to D, then along D to 14th, where we crossed into the Mall, finding spots at the base of the Washington monument by about 9am.

And then we waited, in the cold. A half hour of relative stillness was enough to take away the warmth that physical movement generates, and I was reminded how much colder it is when you’re not moving. I knew this, but hadn’t really thought about how long we’d be out there. As was widely recommended, I had layered, and soon wished I had layered more. Perhaps what one should do is to subtract ten degrees Fahrenheit from the actual temperature for every hour you’ll be standing in the cold.

We had a decent view of a Jumbotron, and we could see the Capitol, but even with binoculars I couldn’t see any individuals. (Our view was partially blocked by trees.) What was significant was to be a part of the 1.8 million assembled, and of the 1.12 million Metro rides that day. It occured to me, standing there, that one had to understand what was going on in order to get anything out of the experience. I was glad that my son was safely and warmly at home; to be able to tell him in later years that he was there would have been a useless gimmick.

So what did I understand the experience to be? On the one hand, under the former administration, I (in chronological order): earned my Ph.D., got a permanent research job, got married, bought a house, had a child. Am I better off than I was eight years ago? Unquestionably, yes. Not bad for living a few miles from the epicenter of what was quite possibly the worst administration in United States history. But of course I was out there in the cold, celebrating with everyone else.

The president has called upon Americans to rise up to our nation’s challenges. He is not the first to call for service to our country and to others, but unlike the mawkishly sanctimonious appeals of virtually every other public leader, his carry a sincerity and gravitas that is convincing. This is perhaps because of his extensive service as a community organizer. As hope and competence replace fear and cronyism as dominant motifs in the administration, I expect that the appeal of satire and detached irony will fade in popular culture: these are for those who are comfortable, detached, and powerless. Anger and self-absorbed drama are out; hard work and careful planning are in. Does this signal an ascendancy for The University of Chicago? The President taught there, of course. David Axelrod, chief campaign stategist, went there, as did Nate Silver, whose reality-based analysis beat all the other pundits this time around. 

Four years ago, the progressive blogosphere wanted everyone to read Don’t Think of an Elephant, and now we have a progressive President that has intuitively understood framing and the use of language longer and better than anyone else on our side. Democrats should now be done with Triangulation. And Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe, too.

On energy and environment and global warming and scores of other policies, Obama can already be said to be turning things around. Although Obama is not the first to mention science in his inaugural address, his reversal of the previous administration’s anti-scientific outlook is heartening. Perhaps our nation can be done with the celebration of anti-intellectualism. Perhaps patriotism will no longer be associated with flag-waving belligerence, but will be understood instead to be a celebration of those extraordinary characteristics of our nation that made our President’s story possible.

This was my hope, as I stood in the cold on the National Mall last Tuesday.

January 27, 2009   1 Comment

Red Street, Blue Street

In the end, I went with the upgrade to Mathematica 7. Of all the new features, the one that really hooked me–which is comparatively minor, compared to all the other new features–is the ability to import SHP files. The importation is not terribly well documented nor is there much additional support, but it was pretty easy to do a few nifty things with the DC Street Centerline file.

As you may know, there is a street in DC for every state in the union. Pennsylvania Avenue is probably the most famous of these; the White House sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. I used to live on Massachusetts Avenue. So my first idea was to make a street map of DC in which the state-named streets were colored red-ish or blue-ish depending on their vote in the recent election.

Here it is:

Read on to see how I made it:

[

January 17, 2009   1 Comment