Military Institute of Terror
August 18, 2001
Dear [55 names],
Right now I am sitting cross-legged on the floor in National Airport in Washington D.C. I am going back to Boston---home, I guess. Tomorrow I am flying to Zürich, Switzerland to attend the wedding of my cousin. On Tuesday I travel to the Netherlands with my mother. For someone who is afraid to fly, this is not a fun schedule.
The reason for my presence here in Washington D.C. was the so-called USENIX Security Symposium, a conference on security in computer science. I gave a presentation on the subject that I wrote about so much already: protection against bandwidth attacks on the Internet. Roughly 3 weeks ago I started preparing this talk. This mainly involved creating slides and practicing what I was going to say. This proved to be much harder than I thought. I practiced this talk at least a dozen times in front of an audience. The first few times the feedback was so drastic that I had to rewrite, redraw, and re-practice the talk completely. After a while the comments became more subtle and the changes became minor. It's a very---sometimes frustrating---iterative process.
Max and I traveled to D.C. two days ago. Even in the airplane we were still discussing a graph and whether or not it should be included in the talk.
The hotel where the conference took place deserves its own paragraph. It was the JW Marriot on Pennsylvania Avenue---one block away from the White House. Thank god, Bush was on vacation so the smell in the neighborhood was OK. My room... no... let me rephrase that... my ballroom was obscene. The first thing I thought when I entered the room was that there must be a wall-sized mirror somewhere that, somehow, made my room look twice its actual size. I stretched out both of my arms and carefully treaded around the room expecting to bang into this mirror. There was no mirror. The room was roughly 3 times the size of ``my'' apartment in Amsterdam, 5 times my room in Somerville. It had a dining table, two couches and a salon table in the corner, a kitchen with its own table (note that we're up to 3 tables already), a desk in the other corner, and a bed to fit at least a 8-headed, 18-legged orgy. That includes the goat.
The attendees of the conference were easy to recognize: bearded, badly dressed, somewhat smelly, mostly ugly men with glasses. Admittedly, bearded women would have been an order of magnitude worse. Max and I tried to understand what the correlation between computer science and bad personal hygiene is, but we could not figure it out.
The night of our arrival I practiced the talk over and over again with Max and went to bed at 2am.
Yesterday morning I started again. At this point Max had turned into a nervous sergeant pacing back and forth in my room yelling and screaming frantically: ``do it again! Again! No! This is your most important slide! Get it right! No, you're bullshiting! Be crisp and clear!'' It was frightening. MIT must stand for Military Institute of Terror.
(I am in the airplane now...)
The conference room was scary. It was packed with at least 200 people. At 12pm that afternoon it was my turn. With sweating and trembling hands I walked up to the stage and introduced myself with a badly shaky voice. It was bad. Max did not look up---he later admitted that he was very nervous. Things got better, though. Once I talked my way through slide 3---the most important one---things went smoothly. I spoke slowly, carefully, and omitted no important things. I stuttered only a handful of times which provoked no real reaction from the audience. My spontaneous joke, on the other hand, was received with a big roar of laughter. Overall I was very happy with the first part of my adventure. Needless to say that I could have been more crisp here and there, but I managed to finish my story in 20 minutes---5 minutes faster than the allocated 25 minutes I had. This was good and bad. Good, because one should not waste words nor time on a fairly simple and straightforward idea. Bad, because this extended the allocated time for questioning from 5 to 10 minutes. At that point my brain had shut down completely and I wanted to get off stage. The questions ranged from very sharp to downright stupid. At one point I got annoyed with a person that clearly had not understood the point of my talk. I somewhat aggressively cut him off. Even though Max told me that this particular incident was the coolest thing I did on stage, he also pointed out that one has to remain calm and courteous. Overall, I am fairly happy with my achievements. (You can look at the PowerPoint presentation: http://thomer.com/mit/multops_usenix2001.ppt)
(I hate turbulence. In fact, I hate flying.)
After the talk, people came up to me, asked questions, and, in one case, a nice young woman asked me out for lunch. Her research was similar to mine. She turned out to be good company. We hung out the rest of the day and decided to leave the fancy hotel around 5pm for a walk through D.C. We walked to the White House, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln monument, the Washington monument, and the Capitol. We chatted about computer science, and bandwidth attacks in particular. Luckily there was room for other topics, also. Today I helped her for a while to prepare her 5-minute talk. I was lucky to make a friend in a conference that, overall, disappointed me in its low-quality talks and its unappealing audience.
(By now I am in an airplane again... this time it's on my way to Switzerland. I hate flying.)
I bought a piano! It's an antique Fischer from 1913. I got it for a fairly friendly price. I even managed to bargain $250 off its original price! I never did that before, but it was fun. My road bike, piano, and wireless hub trinity is now complete.
I have started the unholy mission of studying Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata. This will probably end in failure. In the best case, it will take me a couple of years to learn. It is by far the hardest piece I have ever tried to play.
I have a pretty spectacular story. I have been nominated for the so-called ``Civi'' prize handed out by the Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen (``Dutch Society of Sciences''). This year they hand out a prize to the student with the best thesis in the field of computer science. Every university had to nominate one student; the Vrije Universiteit nominated me. I guess I have a handful of competitors. It's very exciting. Needless to say, I feel very honored and excited! The prize itself is a fairly impressive sum of money. More information is at http://www.hollmij.nl/HMW-Civi.htm. Not knowing who will actually win yet, I will come back to the Netherlands (again) on November 30 to attend the ceremony and to find out who wins the prize.
(I am in my grandmother's house now. In Zürich.)
INS willing, I will start MIT soon! I'm pretty excited about that. From what I have heard, I should brace myself for a tough first semester. It will consist mainly of taking 2 classes (Distributed Systems and Theory of Computation). Apparently, it will be hard to keep up with the speed and to finish the weekly problem sets on time. I'm quite anxious to start.