Of all things, only Death is immortal
September 18, 2001
Dear [57 names],
In response to your many, sometimes concerned, calls and e-mails I send you this message as a follow-up to the one-liner of last week. Many people have asked me since then how I am coping, how things are in Boston, and in the US generally. Unfortunately, I have had no time to answer everyone individually, neither by phone nor by e-mail---for this I apologize. I had, and will have no time to respond to every e-mail or call I got. I judged it more prudent, though admittedly less personal, to write you all at once.
I will not surprise anyone if I say that I am dumbfounded, horrified, and not in the least terrified about the events that took place. My father, concerned about my well-being, called me on Tuesday morning to see if I was still alive. This is how I ended up sitting half naked in front of the television. As the horror unfolded, a great fear descended upon me: it was not at all clear whether or not chemical or biological weapons had been used. A numbing fear paralyzed me. I was trapped and very, very frightened. The only real sensible thing I did was calling my mother to tell her I was (still) alive before she would hear the news. I think I seriously saved her from a heart attack.
While watching TV, I tried to wrap my brain around the possibility that I could die within 24 hours due to some terrible, more or less painful, disease. I felt the urge to drive somewhere quickly where things would be safe, even though I had no clue where that was. Remember that this was when the whole country still seemed under attack and I expected a plane to crash in my street any second. It was Armageddon and for a short moment I understood, no, I *felt* what many people, Israelis in particular, must feel like on a somewhat daily basis.
I sat in front of the TV for a few hours and then got my act back together. I hopped on my bike and on my way to MIT I saw a police officer writing a ticket for an incorrectly parked car.
People at MIT were standing around televisions and looked at the smoldering heaps of what once was America's symbol of economic and military domination. Classes went ahead as scheduled but the professor's voice seemed to be a strange echo coming from afar. All seemed to be disconnected from reality.
On my bike ride this weekend I came up with the following quote: ``Of all things, only Death is immortal.''
So how am I doing? I am doing fine, thank you. Work is crazy. Let me tell you why.
I am a Ph.D. student now. Ph.D. stands for ``Philosophiae Doctor''. My Latin teacher from high-school (who actually reads these messages... he has no e-mail so I have to carve the message into stone and send it to him by boat and horse, very cumbersome) will be pleased to see that I conjugated that correctly. In other words: I will be a doctor in philosophy. In other words: in theory I will be able to heal people. In yet other words: once I get out of here, I will be an expert in nothing that really matters. They even pay me for it. I'm telling you: they got the wrong guy, but they haven't figured that out yet, and I'm certainly not going to tell 'em.
I work in a group of roughly 20 students. The group is called PDOS, which stands for Parallel and Distributed Operating Systems. I have no clue what that means either. It is not important, because the research that we do has more to do with underwater body painting than with Parallel and Distributed Operating Systems. That, they haven't figured out yet either.
All students in my group are so-called graduate (``grad'') students. You can become a grad student by finishing your undergrad---not unlike Dutch kindergarten---and then applying for grad school. If you get in, you will have to do 1) your Master's thesis, and 2) your Ph.D. thesis. Since I did my Master's already, I started working on my Ph.D. It's like fast-lane into grad school, so to say. Besides sleep deprivation, whipping, and eating bad Chinese food from trucks, doing a Ph.D. involves taking classes and doing research. This semester, I will only have time for classes, not for serious research. In fact, I am taking two classes: 6.824 and 6.840. MIT is full of highly descriptive names like this. For example, if you ask someone what (s)he does, you will most likely get an answer somewhat similar to: ``oh, I am in Course 7, and you?'' (The ``and you'' was added to make it resemble a normal conversation... In most real cases you will not get an answer at all. In some cases someone will mumble something incoherently. There have been reported cases of people communicating in a manner that, taken with a grain of salt, could be interpreted as something that vaguely resembles the likes of a somewhat normal conversation.)
I am in Course 6, which is, of course, Computer Science. Class 6.824 is ``Distributed Computer Systems''. 6.840 is ``Theory of Computation'', best pronounced as ``Did You Understand What He Just Said?''
For class we have to hand in a weekly lab assignment (``practicum'') or a problem set (``huiswerk''). At the end of the semester there is an exam (``haarborstel''). If you do not score an A or A+ (equivalent to 9 or 10) you lose. You cannot take an exam again. There is something else about these exams that they don't tell you: grading is relative, not absolute. This means that if I screw up my exam, but the rest of the class REALLY screws up their exam, then I get an A+, no matter how much nonsense I wrote down. I am doing fine as long as other people's nonsense is worse. Result: there is tremendous competition amongst students, because you always have to do better than them! This is why everybody is working so hard: because the others are working so hard, too.
Our front door has a doorknob that lets go if you pull too hard. If you're lucky this happens when you're leaving the house. Sometimes it happens when I get home, and then I have to pull myself entirely through the keyhole---a mildly painful procedure.
I will be having some visitors from overseas soon! I sincerely hope that I won't have to scratch them off the sidewalk and send them home in a shoe.
I hear that humor is a coping mechanism. Shana tova.