Adventures in Bureaucracy
Monday, May 30, 2005
The city of Washington dodges a bullet, in this case some architectural atrocity from Frank Gehry. Isn't there something in design about the context of a building? In this case it looks like he derived inspiration from the crumpled aluminum cans that litter the gutters of the city.

Come to Washington and you'll hear all about Pierre L'Enfant and his designs for the city. There's something stately and, dare I say it, Parisian (I mean that in a good way) about Washington, and since the city is only about two hundred years old, there's more uniformity in the architecture than in many other places. The height restrictions on buildings in the District have kept Washington a low-rise city, and there are Beaux Arts gems all over the place. Maybe that's why some of the modern buildings are so jarring.

Blithering Idiot takes issue with the East Wing of the National Gallery, and I can't argue with him there. It's all sharp edges and strange shapes, which doesn't exactly help getting around inside. Lots of wasted space inside, but the glass pyramid fountain looks pretty good from below.

But the one I really don't like is right across the street at the new Canadian Embassy. Ugh. It's like a stack of those nesting tables, but with columns added in a vain attempt to help it blend in with the rest of the city.
Sunday, May 29, 2005
They're spreading.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
And that reminds me of someone else who really annoys me: Tom Bergeron. Say what you like about Bob Saget, the man could tell a joke without a smug little smirk. In fact, he may bother me more than Rick Steves, since I can at least watch the travel shows.
Bob Saget was on the radio the other day, going back to his stand-up roots. I saw him as a comedian in the days before "Full House" and thought he was great. He's got one of my top-ten favorite one-liners: "I'm nuts over her - she's this tall." So I've liked him since then, although not nearly as much as some other people.
Depersonalization advances another step. I understand why companies like to automate - machines don't ask for raises and don't take sick days (other than the occasional break-down). But it can't be good for the whole concept of "society" that people can go through a day without dealing with other people. Maybe this helps explain all those incidents involving people who seem to lack even basic social skills.

You can count me as one of those people who doesn't like the auto-check-out at the grocery store, or really any other of those things that used to be done by real live people. Remember checking in with a person at an airport? Now it's a whole bank of machines, with two or three harried people trying to keep up with tagging the bags. And flirting with the machine in hopes of an upgrade is out completely.

The phone-tree systems demonstrated how awful things can be without the personal touch ("Please listen while I read a list of options that doesn't contain any choices you want! And pressing '0' won't get you an operator, because there aren't any."), but the most nightmarish systems are those voice-activated ones. I guess they try to duplicate the low-end customer service experience there, since the computers don't seem to understand spoken American English half the time either.

But even so, I'd rather talk to a real, live person. Efficiency alone isn't everything.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Somehow I can go weeks at a time without writing anything on this site. Life is busy, and a lot of the things that rile up the political junkies are just swept along in my stream of consciousness. The whole confirmation compromise? Yawn. Korans in the crapper or not? Not something I endorse, but even if it did happen, it's pretty low down in scale on the list of 21st century human atrocities. The constant ebb and flow of partisan politics? It's not an election year, so the carping doesn't really matter now, does it?

No, what gets me to the keyboard is this: Rick Steves. There's something about him that just bugs the crap out of me. I'll watch him when I'm flicking through the channels and stumble across him on PBS. The last time I did, he was in Venice, and I've always wanted to go there. But his whole attitude is so condescending to Americans. When you're abroad, try to pretend you're something else!

Now don't get me wrong, it can be fun to be someone else when you travel. I often tell annoying foreign street vendors I'm from Toronto before I give them the brush-off, and I have faked a generic, unplaceable Mitteleuropa accent to avoid tedious conversations when stuck on board some mode of travel. But jeez, leaving your "comfort zone and cultural baggage" and becoming a "temporary European"? Because we don't "know what's out there"? I've seen these people when I've been overseas, and they stand out more than the average American just being himself.

Every time I see one of his shows or read something Steves has written, it sounds like he's mired in that view of the American package tourist, taking the bus around the continent. And every right-thinking upper-middle-class PBS viewer must be aghast at the idea of a bus tour and -gasp!- LOOKING like a tourist!

What gets me about Rick Steves and a certain class of tourist (remember, I worked at an airport, so I've seen American tourists by the 747-load coming home, as well as lots of foreign varieties coming here) is that the idea of "authenticity" seems to override any other consideration. Like, say, enjoyment. But there's a reason that bus tours are so popular - they let you see the major sights and take all the fuss out of making travel arrangements. When you don't have to worry about accomodations or transportation, it's much easier to spend your holiday wandering around and, yes, getting off the beaten track for a few hours. And having a guide along to explain things helps you understand what you're seeing by explaining it to you while you're there. This is much better that strapping one of those walkmans to your head and wandering through a museum.

I used to be one of those people looking for an "authentic" experience, but then I found that taking a guided tour in the beginning was a good introduction to a city, and a great way to make excursions out of town. Try making arrangements to see Bath, Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge on your own in a single day without a car.

No, Rick Steves' Europe is not for me, and his tips have always seemed to be fairly standard. I'm not a big fan of his guide books either. My favorites are the "Time Out" city guides and the "Lonely Planet" books (just not the "On a Shoestring" series - if I'm going to shell out for a vacation, I want a certain degree of comfort, and that includes not having to bring my own sheets or walk down the hall to use the loo). The "Eyewitness Travel Guide" series are also great, with enough pictures to make leafing through them almost as good as travelling there.

Any trip is what you make of it, and I like reading travelogs to get ideas for my own travels. There's a series in the Post about Finland now that's almost enough to make me want to go there, but then I look at the exchange rates and Scandinavian prices in general and think about someplace else. Someplace else I can enjoy from the comfort of a well-worn path.
Friday, May 20, 2005
There's a support group for EVERYTHING these days. Can't people work through their own problems any more?

Not that I need this group, mind you. I can quit any time I want. Just as soon as I wipe out the Aztecs and the Zulus.
There will always be an England. Or maybe not.

I blame New Labour.
This month has been one long slog, what with keeping the homeland secure and all, but there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully it's not an oncoming train.
Monday, May 02, 2005
Laura Bush may have a bright career ahead of her in stand-up comedy after 2008. It's either that or run for Senator. Who knew she'd be so good at a deadpan delivery? I caught part of it and thought it was an absolute riot.

Of course, there was the predictable grousing about it, proving that you can't please everyone. One sniffed: "Not a very family-values-type speech. I'm not sure I want to explain a lot of those jokes to my 4-year-old."

The speech was given at a dinner for correspondents and broadcast on C-SPAN. What are the odds any four-year-old would ever see it?
Personal comments, opinions and observations from someone stuck inside the Capital Beltway.

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