Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Take that Mr. Presidents

This weekend Jeff and I braved the cold and went into the city. We didn't manage to check anything off our list, but we did make our way to a few interesting exhibits---the Nature's best photos exhibit at Natural Science is really good; the Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery was probably pretty good, but it was so miserably busy that I didn't actually see anything, so I can't comment.

We also stopped in at the Portrait Gallery, which happens to share the same building as American Art, the Smithsonian where I work. As you can see, the Portrait Gallery has a very popular exhibit on America's Presidents. Just look at the crowds waiting to get in the exhibition hall.

Just kidding. American President's was practically empty. The bathroom outside American President's was, however, quite the hotspot, as crowds flocked to see the portrait of Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert and have their portrait snapped with it. If you watch the Colbert Report, you probably saw the fairly funny episodes about this. If you didn't, well, I bet you can catch it on You Tube.

I don't know what this says about America. But I'll be interested in seeing museum attendance numbers at the end of the month. I'm pretty sure they'll be much higher than average and I don't think it's the Presidents or any other real exhibit bringing in the crowds.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Things That Keep Me Up at Night

I'm a little late on this observation since it dates back to the bowl games and the awesome halftime shows I was treated to, but I thought I'd share anyhow.

Why do members of marching bands have to wear such terrible outfits? What rule requires the jumpsuit style ensembles, the hats that sit so low they cover the eyes of the wearer, the fringe, and the feathers? What can't the uniform be jeans and a school t-shirt?

Also, is there a dorkier person in the band than the person who plays the cymbals? I mean, what reason could you have for playing the cymbals besides a deep desire to be in the band? For many other instruments, the band could just be a side activity, the greater goal some bigger musical accomplishment. But the cymbals, um, not so much. And does it really take any talent to crash two large pieces of metal together? I think I could do that. If I wanted to be in the band. If I wanted to wear that awesome outfit.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Why I Don't Care About Experience

Though the media likes to spin it as if it's a fresh story, it's not. Every time elections roll around, the candidates get to talking about experience--how they have it while their competitors don't, how it's the one thing that really matters when it comes down to it. Well, I say phooey. I don't give a rat's ass about experience when it comes to deciding who I'm going to vote for for President, and here's why.

First, and most simply, I don't believe there's a job in the world that can prepare you to be President of the United States of America. No amount of "experience" can condition you for the amount of power and the amount of responsibility that you will wield as President. It is a job like no other, and I don't envy anyone it.

Secondly, and most importantly, I've seen what "experience" does. I've seen what happens when someone slowly climbs their way up the ladder to reach that top rung. What happens is that they get jaded. They begin to believe the company line. They greet any new idea with a "won't happen." They've seen it all. They know it all. And they immediately dismiss anything that doesn't fit with their "experience." I'm not simply referring to the U.S. government here, but to institutions and corporations throughout the country and world. Look at your own boss and think about whether it's true for them.

So tell me, please, how do we progress when we are led by people unwilling to take a risk because they've "been, there, done that, and know it won't work"? We don't. We walk down the same paths over and over, moving in circles, going nowhere, except maybe backwards.

Look around at companies that have really made it big. Look at the Googles of the world. Were they led/created by people with experience? More often than not, no. They were led by people with vision, people with ideas, people who were willing to try something no one else would because they didn't have the "experience" to be convinced it wouldn't work out.

I look around me and see young people who are smart---maybe even brilliant---, hardworking, and innovative. I see people who could do a better job leading their department, company, organization, or whatever than the "experienced" folks at the wheel. But they're told to wait their turn, to watch and learn, to gain the necessary "experience." What for? So their talent can go to waste and they can one day turn into the "experienced" drone who favors stagnation over growth because it's the less risky path?

Phooey, I say again. What inspires me isn't experience. It's the desire to make the world, the country, the company, the organization better. It's the willingness to listen to ideas, to try the unconventional, to believe that different isn't wrong. It's talent. It's intelligence. It's wit. It's daring. It's passion.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A New Article from Yours Truly

Check out my latest article, which appears online at the daily travel magazine, Brave New Traveler. Next year at about this time, I'll let you know if my advice is worth the paper it's not written on.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

So That's How We Elect a President

I just spent the past 25 minutes watching live video feed on the Washington Post website of one of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. All I have to say is weird.

As I understand it, the Iowa caucus works in the following way:
Those interested in supporting a candidate show up at a designated caucus location by 7 p.m. sharp on polling day. Campaign personnel do all they can to get supporters to the caucuses including providing transportation, babysitting, etc. Other personnel are at the site, and their job is to gather as many people as they can to their corner (literally as each candidate is assigned a physical area in which supporters are to group). At a specified time, all caucus-goers have to be in the designated area of their candidate. They are then counted. Candidates who don't receive support from at least 15% of the total number of people in attendance are eliminated in contention. (The 15% is for a precinct that has 4 or more delegates. The % changes if the precinct has less delegates, but the one I was watching had 8 delegates, so we're going to work with that number.) Once a candidate is eliminated, the group is disbanded and the supporters of the candidates still in contention try to recruit the supporters now without a candidate into their camps. (They can also try to recruit from camps that are still in contention.) This process continues until all groups meet minimum requirements. At that point, the delegates are doled out using the following formula:

(number of supporters in the group MULTIPLIED BY the number of delegates)
(total number of caucus participants)

The overall winner is then determined by the percentage of delegates that goes to each candidate.

Apparently, just filling out a ballot and dropping it in a box just isn't fun/easy/interesting (?) enough.

So, what does it look like in real life you ask?

The closest thing I can come up with is a high school pep rally that pits all the different class years against each other. Each group is huddled close together, and a few of the most high-spirited people are leading cheers promoting their group. The "cool kids" are just chatting, out on the edge of whatever group they've claimed, too cool for the cheers or to really pay much attention to what's going on around them. And the "teachers" (aka caucus workers) are banging on the table, shouting into megaphones, and just generally trying desperately to get everyone's attention, but failing miserably.

It's absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that that what's democracy looked like.

Oh, and did I mention the methods for counting people? It's nothing scientific, no dropping something that can't be duplicated in a box, or swiping of a card in some form of computer. No, this is Iowa folks, and there's no need for anything as fancy-pancy as that. Instead, one group used the good ol' "sound off" technique, where one person yelled out 1, then the next person yelled out 2, and so on and so forth. Another group used a technique that involved everyone raising their hand and then lowering their hand as the chosen counter pointed at them and said a number. What kept members of group 1, who were not lined up in any organized manner but were rather arranged in a big amoeba-like blob, from counting themselves again by yelling out a second number I have no idea. And what kept members of group 2--also a messy mass of humanity--from putting their hand right back up and being counted again beats me. I guess that they must know the total number of people present and the numbers from all the groups added together can't exceed that, but it just seems a little bit backwards to me.

At the same time, I'm completely tempted to move to Iowa during an election year so that I can join in the fun that is caucusing.

(In case you were wondering, the precinct I was watching broke down as follows: 3 delegates Obama, 2 delegates Clinton, 2 delegates Edwards, 1 delegate Richardson. )

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Why Winter?

According to Wikipedia, the ancient Romans established January 1 as the beginning of the new year in 153 BC. In the following centuries, however, this wasn't adhered to and the date that signified the start of a new year varied, most often to align it with Christian holidays or natural events such as the vernal equinox. The Gregorian calendar, which was created in 1582, listed January as the first month, thus making January 1 the first day of the new year. This wasn't universally accepted, however, and as a matter of fact, Britain and its colonies (which included America at the time) did not begin to recognize January 1 as the new year until 1752.

If you really start thinking about time, it gets confusing, considering the ways we have for measuring it are primarily man-made constructions that have varied over the course of existence of life on Earth. It still varies even today. For example, Ethiopia just celebrated the millennium on what our calendars showed as September 12, 2007. Apparently traveling back in time isn't as difficult as we all think it is. Just hop a flight to Ethiopia, and you'll be in the year 2000.

Anyhow, I've kind of meandered away from the point I originally intended to make, which is who the hell thought it was a good idea to make the new year begin right in the heart of winter? If I had the power to alter the calendar, I'd move the new year to spring. It just makes sense. Spring is about renewal, rebirth, new life. Spring is inspiring. Winter...well, it is dark and depressing.

I feel unmotivated and lazy in the winter. When it's dark and cold outside, there's little I want to do other than curl up on my couch with a blanket and a good book. I don't want to do all the things I resolve to do in the new year. When the temperature is below freezing and the wind is blowing brutally, the last thing I want to do is go outside and exercise. I have no doubt that the reason most people don't keep their New Year's resolutions is that it's just too hard to keep up your motivation in the darkest months of the year. Only the most self-punishing prevail. It's as if we're being set up to fail. Cruel, I tell you.

Additionally, it would be much more fun to celebrate the new year at a time of year when the weather is better. Who really enjoys standing outside to watch fireworks or dropping balls when the mercury is hardly registering in the thermometer? Who wants to put on a cute going-out outfit only to cover it with a heavy coat you have to keep track of all night? Not me, that's for sure. And, having just celebrated Christmas, I'm kind of partied out by the time the calendar flips. Seriously, it's just not the right time of the year for a change.

But I don't think my one woman crusade is going to make any waves, so I guess I might as well wish you a happy 2008. Good luck with those resolutions.