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Have you prayed for your President today?

May 13, 2003

Dear [everyone],

With my head a bit more clear, I dare face the empty digital scratch-pad that is always a bit intimidating and daunting at first.

I have narrowly escaped a rather unpleasant scenario. I had not yet publicly announced that I got myself into a bit of trouble at MIT. The Ph.D. program that I'm doing consists of two so-called Qualifying Exams (the Technical Qualifying Exam (TQE) and the Research Qualifying Exam (RQE)) and a Ph.D. thesis. The TQE is basically a test to demonstrate that you're not stupid. Unsurprisingly, I blatantly failed at that. I had to score four A's (or three A's and one B) for classes. Unfortunately, I ended up with grades not even close to this requirement. Though luck wasn't on my side in two classes, I had mostly myself to blame. First and foremost, I grossly overestimated my own intellect. I thought I'd be able to catch up two weeks before the exams, like I had done at the Vrije Universiteit for six years. Secondly, I spent most of my time doing research. This was partly encouraged by my adviser who, obviously, preferred his money going into tangible results rather than stupid classes.

My questionable grades, one in particular, got me into trouble. I received a letter that regretted to inform me that ``the Committee on Graduate School Programs found your academic performance to be below the level expected of a graduate student''. It continued to say that ``upon recommendation of your Department, the Committee voted to permit you to register for one more term, during which you are expected to demonstrate improved performance. If you do not, you may be denied further registration in the Graduate School.''

This is code for: you have to pass an oral exam or we'll bite.

This was January 31. Needless to say, I got very distressed. Add to that my loss of appetite to do research and I was facing a serious crisis. However, the one thing that this letter achieved was to motivate me to make sure that IF I was going to stop at MIT, it was going to be on my own terms, not theirs. I wanted to pass this oral exam.

The oral exam I had to do would cover all topics that I had not scored an A for. That was three out of four classes I had taken. Theory, Artificial Intelligence, and Computer Architecture. None are my favorite topics, or things I (want to) know a lot about. I had three months to study for it.

April 31, the date of my oral, inched closer and closer. The exam itself went quite well. They didn't make it easy on me, but I passed. In Andy's words: ``You can beat MIT despite its best efforts to beat you.''

I got another letter that said that they were ``pleased to inform you that you have completed the Technical Qualifying Examination satisfactorily... Congratulations on completing this phase of the program.''

Woof woof.

Things are looking good now. I passed the TQE, and the Research Qualifying Exam will be no problem. I virtually passed that one already. In optimistic moods, I sometimes think I probably have three, at most four, more years to go. In addition, I might be back on an interesting research track. I'm so much better than a few months ago.

I have no idea what will happen after that. No clue.

My apartment has gone through a transformation. I really, really feel at home. In a country that, in certain ways, alienates me more and more, it is good to have a safe place that looks and feels like home.

So, the executive summary is that I'm doing very well. In many ways.

Bumper stickers. People in this country express their petty little thoughts through pieces of paper with a message on one side and glue on the other. Usually these pieces of papers are attached to cars. The point is to annoy other people on the road, in a situation where the most eloquent possible discussion is an exchange of honks. What I find surprising is how bumper stickers closely follow world events. Before the war, I saw lots of stickers that said ``War with Iraq? NO!'', or ``Invade Iraq!''. The most popular one, since 9/11, is still ``United We Stand'', or ``Proud To Be An American''. During the war I saw a few that said ``Let's Roll'' and ``Family Member Actively Serving''. Not sure what the point of that one is. Recently I saw ``Have You Prayed for Your President Today?''. One of the more amusing ones was ``Let's not elect Bush in 2004, either.''

Did you hear that Americans now so dislike the French that they renamed ``French Fries'' to ``Liberty Fries'' in some places?

Actually, now that all those tanks and those marvelously accurate weapons are all there, why not clean up Syria and Iran while we're at it? Turns out you don't really need to find weapons of mass destruction as a reason to invade a country. (They'd better come up with a few very soon.) So I say: Let's Roll into Damascus and Tehran. It's great living in the most powerful country in the world---you silly old Europeans have no idea what you're missing out on. Dudes, stop quarreling, get your act together, and build an army. It's so much fun.

Having been subjected to three years---yep, three years---of such blatant nationalism I have decided to retaliate: I bought a huge flag for each of my nationalities (Dutch, Swiss, and Israeli) and nailed them to the walls in my hallway. I'm sure I would have never done this in any other place than here in the US, but I guess this is my way of establishing my own sacred ground amidst all this stupidity.

Meanwhile, I'm following the news from Holland with increasing astonishment. If you think that the US is messing up, take a good look at yourself. Though, admittedly, you kill many fewer people.


Copyright © 1994-2016 by Thomer M. Gil
Updated: 2004/09/06