Wait, have you heard? I mean, it’s only been published all over the MIT homepage, in three or four different blog entries, all over the news, and is the talk of campus. . . President Obama came and visited on Friday(!), giving an address on clean energy. As prestigious as MIT is, and as brilliant as some of the professors are, we still get super excited when something like this happens (kind of equivalent to when famous baseball players ask for autographs from the people they’re playing against).
The announcement was on Tuesday, with MIT only finding out about the visit the weekend before. MIT went into scramble mode, which is always fun to watch. It doesn’t go into scramble mode very often, the only other times I’ve seen it are immediately prior to CPW and before the Dalai Lama came and visited. Scramble mode, if you’ll let me draw another comparison, is like when you have 10 minutes before your parents come upstairs to check to see if you cleaned your room. MIT was repairing buildings, pressure washing everything in sight, replacing windows, emptying stores of hazardous chemicals, and beautifying MIT just as fast as they possibly could.
All of this was fine and good, and I kind of enjoyed watching how MIT prioritized what was being cleaned where (you could pretty much predict the route Obama was going to take based on how clean the sidewalk was), but I expected that to be the most of my Obama-Visit-Experience. Word on the street was that MIT, as an entire institute, had received 200 tickets to allocate however they saw fit. That means all of the faculty, administration, undergraduates, and graduate students had to share 200 tickets. In the end, 50 of those tickets went to undergraduates, typically those who are doing some kind of work with energy or that deans felt would benefit the most from Obama’s address. Needless to say, the MechE student who doesn’t have a UROP and would rather build toys than wind farms was not chosen for a ticket.
So that was that, I’d stalk around and try to get some money shots of snipers and motorcades but in terms of actually seeing the president speak, it was a no go. That is, until I realized I worked for the Admissions office. Hmmmmm, I write for a website that prospective students read so that they can see what cool opportunities await them at MIT. This seems like a cool opportunity . . . I smell a PRESS PASS!
Turns out, Jess had a similar idea, and both of us e-mailed the powers at be (Dave) and asked if we could have press passes. 2 days and many strings pulled later, guess who had tickets to the address! WEEEEE!
Seriously. This was cool stuff. Everybody all over campus was abuzz about how only 50 students were going to be chosen and complaining about how more should be invited etc, and now all of a sudden I was going to see the President! On Thursday evening, the evening before Obama arrived, the Secret Service and Security had taken over MIT. All of the garbage cans from around Kresge (the auditorium) were trucked off, all the manholes and steam vents were welded shut (seriously) and tons of other invisible-to-me security measures were enacted.
Friday morning I woke up at 7:00 after having gone to bed at 4:30 (PSETs are brutal). I dressed nicely and headed to lab to get some work done before the big event. I made sure to bring my ticket with me:
On my way to campus I noticed that it was a little more difficult this morning, difficult enough that they provided signs.
and had everything blocked off with cones
I spent some time in lab, built some yoyos (my team is getting REALLY excited about these yoyos, they’re actually coming out how we expected, and we’re 2 weeks ahead of all the other teams), and then went to get in line. The ticket told me to get in line at 10:30AM. I got there at 10:00AM and what did it look like?
Yeah. I was like, last. Ok, I’m last in every line that I join, but you know what I mean.
Time went fast, luckily enough, because eavesdropping on people attending an Obama address is AWESOME! Let’s see, the guy in front of me helped design Fenway park, somebody behind me appeared to know every single congressman ever, and so on and so forth. I was standing next to Julia ’13, who also got a ticket (one of the 50, as a freshman!), and we chatted about how we were totally out of our element, about how excited we were, about security, about whether we were going to see Marine 1 or a motorcade, etc.
Oh, speaking of snipers, we spotted this guy chilling on the Z-center.
What’s that black dot?
Ah. Sniper. Gotcha.
Eventually we wound our way into the auditorium (after three ticket checks) and towards the metal detector. The metal detector was relatively routine, until they saw my smartpen*. You see, the plan was to make a pencast of the address, taking digital notes and recording Obama’s voice on my pen. Guess what the Secret Service had never heard of before. My pen. I had to explain what it did, let them pass it around (almost gave them a demo), and eventually they cleared it. I didn’t beep so I didn’t get frisked or wanded, and then Julia and I headed inside. We saw a bunch of empty seats up front that we immediately headed for, only to realize that we weren’t nearly special enough to sit in those seats.
We ended up about 7 rows back and on the right side of the auditorium. It was 10:30. The speech started at 12:30. We weren’t allowed to leave. We didn’t know anybody. What’s one to do? Take pictures and wander of course. I wanted to hobnob with the important people but I’m pretty sure they didn’t want to talk to me. Professor Sadoway was a little less afraid, standing up at the front with the senators and mayors, presumably talking about his research.
I feel like this is the “Ok, which multi-millionaire can I tell about my battery research next?” look.
Then I took some pictures of the scene around me. The first thing I noticed, surprisingly, was the amount of room the news cameras took up.
No wonder they couldn’t invite more than 200 people from MIT, 200 more seats were taken up by cameras! Sam Range ’13 (my prefrosh for CPW last year) is a photographer for The Tech and was forced to hang out behind all of the video cameras in the roped off area. He got some good pictures though, I’ll show you one later.
Next was the stage, all decked out for the occasion.
The flags all looked identical, and the lady next to me told me the trick. They put a coat hanger up inside the flags at the top to give them similar angles, and then tape the back of the flag to the flag pole so they all lay flat. Betcha didn’t know that! The shrubberies were a nice touch, but we couldn’t figure out what those black screens were for, flanking the podium. The nearest we could figure, Secret Service was just laying behind them, waiting for something bad to happen so they could jump up and go all ninja on everybody. Makes sense, right? Right.
After two hours of waiting, I made my way to my seat. A lady came out onto the stage, was introduced, and sang the National Anthem (very well) and we all cheered, remaining on our feet. We stood there awkwardly for about 2 minutes, completely silent, expecting the President to be announced, but nothing happened. Eventually the sound guys played the same classical music they’d been playing for the last two hours and we all laughed and sat down for another 15-20 minutes. Soon a man came out and put the seal on the front of the podium, and we all got quiet again, expecting something to happen. False alarm.
After some more waiting and more classical music (and talking about MIT Admissions with the woman next to me, who knows somebody applying this year), a side door opened and some bigwigs came in, including the governor and the mayor. Everybody clapped really loudly, this must be it! Then, from the other side of the auditorium, my side (like, 20 feet in front of me), John Kerry walked in.
So, the thing about John Kerry is that, well, he looks EXACTLY like John Kerry. No joke, it’s like “Hey! That’s the guy from JibJab!”
The gravity of this whole thing kind of clicked in when I saw John Kerry. He’s an important guy, and he’s just standing right there! Like, RIGHT there, in front of me. I could throw my cell phone at him and hit him (it’d be the last thing I ever did, but I could have!).
Then, all of a sudden, we heard it. A voice, as if from god, saying: “Now, introducing our speaker, the President of — MIT, Susan Hockfield!” False Alarm AGAIN! No offense Dr. Hockfield, but you weren’t the most important president in the room right then.
Susan Hockfield came up and gave a nice introduction, welcoming us, and then said “It is my great pleasure to introduce — Professor Moniz!”
GAH! Another False Alarm! I couldn’t take much more! Finally, FINALLY, Professor Moniz said “And now, the President of the United States, Barack Obama!” (not an exact quote, but you get the idea). The room roared and leaped professionally to its feet.
There he was. Barack Obama strolled across the stage. Our stage. The stage that we put a moonbounce on just for kicks. The stage that I’ve stood on dozens of times. The stage that was presently 30 feet away from me. The President. GAH! You can feel it, you know, when he walks on stage. For some reason it becomes immediately obvious just how important this guy is, he’s in charge of our country. Country, as in all the people I’ve ever met.
He began his speech the way most do, and I’ll save you the specifics because I took notes and you can listen to it yourself. I will take the opportunity to show you a picture I took of Obama with my very own camera. That’s right, the President is in my camera.
and here’s the picture Sam Range took.
His is, um, better. But mine looks more amateur (which = real).
So go ahead and listen to his speech, or at least the first several lines when he rags on Harvard and praises MIT hackers (score++).
You’ll want to skip ahead to about 27 minutes into this pencast. I paused the pen during recording, which apparently just inserts silence into the recording, which a stupid implementation that Livescribe needs to fix. Anyway, wait for it to buffer about halfway and then either click the word “Introducing” in the top left or drag the slider to the 27:00 mark.
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And like that, it was all over. Obama left on the left side of the stage and headed down the front row, shaking hands with all of the important people on his way out. This was going to be the chance when I could get closest to him, and I had a mission.
Mission? Allow me to explain. The floor I live on at MIT has this silly little tradition of assigning units of measure to people, units that measure something that person is known for. For example, 1 Snively is equivalent to 1 byte wasted on the Internet. A Tang is a measure of orthogonality to normal conversation (meaning 90 degrees of Tang will sever a conversation clean in two, creating a really uncomfortable silence) and an Itani is the unit of negative tact (meaning if you are tactless, you get 1 Itani). You can read more about the origins of this tradition here. Several years ago, ex-blogger Sam Maurer ’07 visited the set of the Colbert Report and decided that he should ask Stephen Colbert what his unit was. The fact that he actually asked Stephen Colbert, in person, is somewhat legendary.
Now, I was about to be in the same room as the President of the United States. There was no WAY I was leaving that room without asking President Obama what his unit would measure. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but it was going to, and it might involve scolding by important members of the audience and the Secret Service, but once in a lifetime opportunities only come once.
So, as I said, Obama was going to walk right in front of me. I pushed my way up to the second row of seats but was way too short for Obama to see me, so in the words of James ’11, I went in “guns blazing.” I climbed onto the armrests of the chairs and stood about 3 feet above everybody else. Obama was RIGHT there! I struck:
“PRESIDENT OBAMA!” I screamed, “PRESIDENT OBAMA!”
he looked at me.
“IF THE OBAMA WERE A UNIT OF MEASURE, WHAT WOULD IT MEASURE???”
he smiled and shook somebody’s hand. Every around me laughed and told me it was an awesome question and that I should try asking again. Obama was getting closer to the door, I only had one more chance.
he looked at me and said “Hi!”
Totally unfazed by the fact that Barack Obama had just said “Hi” to me, I tried again.
“IF THE OBAMA WERE A UNIT OF MEASURE, WHAT WOULD IT MEASURE!?”
he just smiled again. And then he was gone. And then I got tapped on the leg. I looked down and a member of the MIT event staff looked up at me.
“Secret Service is going to ask you to get down.” This I knew, so I got down off the chairs and stopped making a scene. Those people who have met me know that I can be very loud when necessary, so anybody within a 30 foot radius of me had heard me yelling at the President (and seen me because I was standing on chairs). I’m pretty sure I had instantly been flagged by Secret Service and they were on their way over. Sure enough, once I was on the ground, I was met by my favorite humor-less suited friends.
“Next time please stay on the ground.”
“Ok.” I said. Sure. Next time. Next time I’m that close to the President I’ll make sure not to climb on chairs. Roger. is what I thought.
So, the verdict on Obama’s unit? Unless he officially rebukes this and offers an alternative unit, the official unit of Obama is equivalent to “Smiling at somebody and subsequently completely ignoring them.” If you hear somebody, smile at them, and then ignore one, you’ve earned 1 Obama.
The end! I mean, after that I grabbed some lunch and went to lab to crank out yoyos.
A once in a lifetime opportunity to be sure. It’s not every day that you get to see snipers, the President, and he says hi to you while you make a scene and draw the gazes of all the Secret Service agents in the room. But it was a good day. A gooooooood day.
*According to new revisions to section 255.5 of the FTC Guides Governing Endorsements and Testimonials, I’m obliged to inform you that I’m currently employed as a marketer by Livescribe, manufacturer of the Pulse Smartpen. You are so informed.