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23 April 201501:03PMusa-2015travel

Washington DC is a city by fiat.

It's very obviously been founded by a bunch of guys saying, "Okay, we will have a city here". Not because it has a great natural harbour or important resources or a good strategic position. It's just here because some founders said so. It's been declared into existence.

That's reflected in its character. It's very much "Well, since we're here, we might as well make it nice." It's designed nice. All cities are built, but some grow. This is a city that's been put in place. It's been implemented. And some of those nice things that were implemented worked, like the Georgetown canal. And some of those things that were implemented didn't work so well, like the frankly terrifying 1970s-zeerust retro-future demi-Orwellian brutalist fever dream that is the DC Metro. But it's definitely not a city that grew organically.


I found my cultural touchstone for DC when I was looking at the zero milestone yesterday. For New York, it's the TV series How I Met Your Mother. For Boston, it's The Social Network.

Here, it's Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. The way the city is entirely operated by and concerned with nothing other than the continued functioning of the Government of the United States of America, Of The People, By The People, And For The People, One Nation, Under God. Whether they want it or not.

That said, they've got some pretty cool stuff to nerd out over.

A quick aside before I launch into the stuff-fest: the best way, and I mean the absolute hands down best way to see DC is with the bike share bikes. The traffic in this city is simply awful. It's a case study in how building roads utterly fails to fix traffic problems. They have more roads than any other city I have ever seen, and by far the worst traffic of any city I have ever seen. Don't bother with taxis, buses, or Ubers (though we did try one, and it was great fun except for the bit where Grace had lost a contact and couldn't see.) The Metro is never busy, but the stations are far too sparse to be useful. Get. Bikes. You will skim past traffic and be happier for it. Trust me.



The Lincoln memorial is really interesting, and sort of contradictory-feeling. I think Grace put her finger on it best - it's this imperial veneration, in very imperial style, of a guy who fought for exactly the opposite.

The Gettysburg address is engraved on one wall, and what I gathered to be a presedential acceptance speech is on the other. They're a monument, as much as anything else, to how tricky it is to read extended passages of text which are typeset in all capitals. It was worth it though. This is the first time I've read the Gettysburg address in its entirety, and I have to say, it is a masterpiece of speechwriting. Even today. Every sentence is punchy and sound-bite-able. The whole thing gets right to the point, and it's got a nice little twist of irony with the idea that "[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

We took some obligatory pictures, but I think the most interesting bits were all of the little additions to the structure, which seemed slightly more ignored. Things like the stone indicating where Martin Luther King gave the "I Have A Dream" speech. Or the metal plaque awkwardly added to the bottom of the stairs when some extra states joined the union and couldn't be put on a gigantic marble plinth.

It's an odd structure, but an interesting one, and I enjoyed visiting it.


Congress is DC's rasion d'etre, and it shows. It is right in the middle. The streets are numbered and lettered based on how far they are from this building. And they have by far the silliest security arrangements of any structure so far, in that in addition to guns and knives, they also don't let you take food and drink in. So we had to eat our skilfully-pilfered-from-breakfast snacks in the courtyard before going in.

Once we did get in though, it was worth it. Not only is it a magnificent building, but it was actually very little hassle (even as "foreign nationals") for us to head into the House of Representatives gallery and watch some actual Congress happening. Not that there was much Congress happening. It was just two guys going back and forth on how the United States should recognise the Armenian Genocide and not bow to apparent political pressure from Turkey. This then dwindled to one - party unknown - ranting about how potential patent reforms went against the principles of the founding fathers.

The extent to which the political discourse (what little of it we saw) basically boils down to patriotism is pretty fascinating. Depending on how cynical you are, these people are genuinely still totally enamoured with their country's early political history, to the exclusion of all else, or else very aware of the power that discourse still carries and are totally unconcerned with how trivially they might be seen to be applying it. Judging by some fairly self-aware comments in the speeches we heard, I think it's probably somewhere between the two extremes.

There's actually a tunnel connecting Congress to the Library of Congress, which was just amazing. They had a viewing area over the reading room, which is properly iconic, and (much cooler) a reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson's library. He sold his private collection to congress after a fire, and they subsequently lost a fair chunk of it in another one. They've spent the last few hundred years painstakingly recreating that collection, sticking to Jefferson's original cataloguing system, and tagging whether books are originals or replacements with adorable coloured silk bookmarks. It's a very cool room, in a very cool building. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn that it's apparently (still!) the largest library in the world.

I really enjoy the inversion of security we've seen so far at libraries. They had something similar at the New York Public Library. They are utterly unconcerned with what you might be bringing in - all the security is, as it always has been, directed at stopping books from getting out. At least without being properly barcode-scanned, although I doubt the Library of Congress actually allows you to take books out.

National Air And Space Museum

This is a museum the way a museum should be. Which is to say, free. And easily accessible by bike share and public transit. And full of spaceships.

I have very specific criteria, okay?

This is a place to wander through and learn. Or if you are already a colossal space geek, to wander through and point at things and exclaim, "Oh my god, that's an actual [item]".

Wonderfully curated, with some amazing items, and hearteningly packed with people. Even if some of them did insist on doing Despicable Me voices all the way through the life-size Skylab.

(They have a life-sized Skylab!)

Here are my highlights. I have kept it to three, in an attempt to keep this post under 2000 words.

Actual Apollo 11 command module

Actual Hubble Space Telescope corrective optics

Actual RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine

So from top to bottom, we've got:

  1. Columbia, the actual command module that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins flew to the moon and subsequently returned to earth inside. Complete with charred ablative heat-shield. They have this right in the entrance. It's awesome.

  2. COSTAR, the corrective optics module that was installed in the Hubble Space Telescope after its main mirror turned out to be misshapen. This guy was the subject of many political cartoons comparing it to glasses, and the whole thing was a bit embarassing to NASA - but it did its job, and after it was installed during the first Hubble Servicing Mission we got some of the most amazing pictures of space we've ever had. They brought it back down again on the next servicing mission, because we needed another one, because Hubble has lasted longer than anyone ever planned. Fun fact about Hubble: It actually, when you literally put them up next to each other, is pretty comparable in size to Skylab. It is a very big telescope.

  3. The Rocketdyne RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine. It's no F1, but three of these powerful bastards were the workhorse of the space program for decades. They were modular and interchangable, and essentially had to be rebuilt after every 8-minute burn. So there were 46 of them, for 3(ish) shuttles. They were so finicky that they were started several seconds before lift-off, just in case something went wrong, because once the solid boosters were ignited it was hideously difficult to turn around and come home. If Congress has its way, five of these will be the core of the Space Launch System, and will end up at the bottom of the ocean after just one launch. Which... I'm not sure how I feel about. That seems incredibly wasteful for one launch - but that launch might well be to Mars. We'll see.

Okay, this has turned into a novel, so I'm going to stop writing now and grab something to eat.

Thanks for sticking around.

They say that in D.C., all the museums and the monuments have been concessioned out and turned into a tourist park that now generates about 10 percent of the Government's revenue. The Feds could run the concession themselves and probably keep more of the gross, but that's not the point. It's a philosophical thing. A back-to-basics thing. Government should govern. It's not in the entertainment industry, is it? Leave entertaining to Industry weirdos -- people who majored in tap dancing. Feds aren't like that. Feds are serious people. Poli-sci majors. Student council presidents. Debate club chairpersons. The kinds of people who have the grit to wear a dark wool suit and a tightly buttoned collar even when the temperature has greenhoused up to a hundred and ten degrees and the humidity is thick enough to stall a jumbo jet. The kinds of people who feel most at home on the dark side of a one-way mirror.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

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