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"If the Obama were a unit of measure …"

A student’s account of the president’s visit.
December 21, 2009

Wait, have you heard? I mean, it’s only been all over the news, and is the talk of campus … President Obama 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.

After finding out about the visit the weekend before, MIT went into scramble mode, which is always fun to watch. Scramble mode is like when you have 10 minutes before your parents come upstairs to see if you’ve cleaned your room. People were repairing buildings, pressure-washing everything in sight, replacing windows, emptying stores of hazardous chemicals, and beautifying MIT just as fast as they possibly could.

I enjoyed watching how MIT prioritized what was being cleaned (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 extent of my Obama Visit Experience. Word on the street was that MIT had received 200 tickets to allocate among faculty, administration, undergraduates, and graduate students. In the end, 50 of those tickets went to undergraduates, typically those who were doing some kind of work with energy. Needless to say, the MechE student who doesn’t have a UROP and would rather build toys than wind farms was not chosen.

So I’d stalk around and try to get some money shots of snipers and motorcades, but actually seeing the president speak was a no-go. That is, until I remembered I write a blog for the Admissions Office so prospective students can see what cool opportunities await them at MIT. This seems like a cool opportunity … I smell a PRESS PASS! Two days and many strings pulled later, guess who had a ticket! WHEEEEE!

RESOURCES Listen to Michael Snively's pencast of Obama's speech.

The evening before Obama arrived, the Secret Service had taken over MIT. All the garbage cans around Kresge were trucked off, many of 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 build some yo-yos for my design and manufacturing class (my team is getting REALLY excited about these yo-yos–they’re actually coming out how we expected, and we’re two weeks ahead of all the other teams), and then went to get in line.

Eavesdropping on people attending an Obama address is AWESOME! Let’s see, I believe the guy in front of me helped renovate Fenway Park, and somebody behind me appeared to know every single congressman ever. I was standing next to Julia ‘13, who also got a ticket, 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 One or a motorcade, etc.

Oh, speaking of snipers, we spotted one chilling on the Z-center. Eventually we wound our way into the auditorium and toward the metal detector. The security check was relatively routine, until they saw my Smartpen*. The plan was to make a pencast of the address, taking digital notes and recording Obama’s voice. Guess what the Secret Service had never heard of before. My pen. I had to explain what it did and let them pass it around (almost gave them a demo), but eventually they cleared it.

We ended up about seven rows back on the right. It was 10:30. The speech started at 12:30. We weren’t allowed to leave. We didn’t know anybody. So I took pictures and wandered.

The first thing I noticed was the amount of room the news cameras took up. No wonder they couldn’t invite more than 200 people from MIT: 200 seats were taken up by cameras! Sam Range ‘13 (my prefrosh for Campus Preview Weekend 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.

The flags on the stage all looked identical, and the lady next to me told me they put a coat hanger up inside them at the top to give them similar angles, and then tape the back of the flag to the flagpole so they all lie flat. Betcha didn’t know that! We couldn’t figure out what those black screens were for, flanking the podium. The nearest we could figure, Secret Service was just lying behind them, waiting for something bad to happen so they could jump up and go all ninja on everybody.

After two hours, I made my way to my seat. After more waiting, 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 my side of the auditorium (like, 20 feet in front of me), John Kerry walked in.

The gravity of this whole thing kind of clicked in when I saw Kerry. He’s an important guy, and he’s just standing right there! 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: “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome MIT president Susan Hockfield!” False alarm! 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 now my pleasure to introduce … Professor Moniz!”

GAH! Another false alarm! 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 moon bounce on last year. The stage that I’ve stood on dozens of times. The stage that was 30 feet away from me. The president. GAH! You can feel it when he walks on stage–it becomes immediately obvious just how important this guy is.

He began his speech the way most do, and I’ll spare you the specifics because you can listen to it yourself online. (Start about 27 minutes into my pencast, which is at At least make sure you listen to the first several lines, when he rags on Harvard and praises MIT hackers (score++).

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 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.

Allow me to explain. The floor I live on at MIT has this silly tradition of assigning units of measure to people–units that measure something that person is known for. For example, one Snively is equivalent to one byte wasted on the Internet. A Tang is a measure of orthogonality to normal conversation (meaning that 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 (if you are tactless, you get one Itani). Several years ago, in an incident that is somewhat legendary, ex-blogger Sam Maurer ‘07 visited the set of The Colbert Report and asked Stephen Colbert what his name was a unit of.

Now I was in the same room as the president of the United States. There was no WAY I was leaving that room without asking him what unit of measure an Obama would be. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, and it might involve scolding by important members of the audience and the Secret Service, but once-in-a-lifetime opportunities only come once.

I pushed my way up to the second row of seats and climbed onto the armrests of the chairs to stand about three feet above everybody else. Obama was RIGHT there! I struck:


He looked at me.


He smiled and shook somebody’s hand. Everyone 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.


He just smiled again. And then he was gone. And 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 and stopped making a scene. (People who have met me know that I can be very loud when necessary. ) Sure enough, once I was on the ground, I was met by my favorite humorless suited friends.

“Next time, please stay on the ground.”

“Okay,” 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? Unless the president offers an alternative unit, the “Obama” will be defined as a measure of smiling at somebody and completely ignoring them. If you hear somebody, smile at them, and then ignore them, you’ve earned one Obama.

The end! I mean, after that I grabbed some lunch and went to lab to crank out yo-yos.

It was a good day. A goooooood day.

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this account first appeared in Michael Snively’s blog on the Admissions Office website.

*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.

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