Guns 'n Jewelry
September 30, 2003
It's been quite a while. In fact, it has been 4 months and 16 days since my last email. For a good reason, though: nothing much happened. Would you be able to write an interesting email about the last few months of your life? Yes? No, I didn't think so. Now try *every* few months.
I'll do my best anyway.
Work-wise things are going up and down. I guess all Ph.D. students go through their very own unique patterns of intense boredom, lack of motivation, void of progress, and all those other joyous feelings that are the merits of doing a Ph.D. And so it came to be that I wasted a few months doing nothing but browsing the Web. A royal waste of time, which it, indeed, was.
Here's the scoop about what I've been working on lately. (Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs about computer-related topics.) A somewhat recent development in my field is the rise of so-called peer-to-peer technology. You may have heard of Kazaa, probably in the context of illegal music, porn, or movie file-sharing. Kazaa is a program that relies on peer-to-peer technology. Basically, peer-to-peer means that no single computer is ``the boss''. Traditionally, people have worked with ``servers'' and ``clients''. Servers are big, expensive computers that people use to store their important files on, or, in general, that offer some centralized service. Clients are simple, cheap, desktop computers used to access files (or other services) on the server. There are, among others, two essential problems with the client/server approach that motivated the rise of peer-to-peer technology. First of all, when the server crashes, all hell breaks loose, for obvious reasons. All files and services that people relied upon are suddenly inaccessible. Secondly, people who don't agree with the services that the server is offering can sue you and force you to stop running the server, thereby shutting down the services. So, essentially, a server is a technical and jurisdictional point of failure. Computer scientists don't like single points of failures.
Peer-to-peer technology is the computer science equivalent of communism. All computers are equal. No single computer is responsible for the survival of the system as a whole. This solves our main two problems: if one computer crashes, no problem. And secondly, there's nobody you can sue anymore, because no single entity carries responsibility for the well-being of the entire system. (But, just like communism, peer-to-peer also has its problems. In fact, I'm a non-believer, but that's not the point.) Kazaa is giving the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) a big, big headache. Millions of people are using Kazaa to exchange music on the Internet and there's not much the RIAA can do about it. No single person they can sue. (They're trying, though.) Illegal as file-swapping may be, the music industry has made the deep mistake not to immediately offer online stores that allow people to download music for a small price. Rather than embracing new technology, they are trying to resist it. Unsurprisingly, they are losing.
Academia has taken interest in peer-to-peer technology. It has some interesting properties that make for interesting research. There has been an explosion in research projects in the field of peer-to-peer technology and everyone designed their own little peer-to-peer program, claiming it is better than all others. Nobody, however, sat down and tried to make a decent comparison. Comparing these different technologies is hard. Very much like comparing apples and oranges. (When I tell people here that the Dutch say ``apples and pears,'' they always feel inclined to point out that apples and pears aren't that different at all.) So, to get to the point, I am working on software---a simulator---that allows us, and anyone else who wants to, to compare different peer-to-peer technologies.
I expect to keep working on this for a few more months.
So much for work.
My summer was good. I stayed in Cambridge, mostly, working on the simulator. I had many, many visitors; most notably Y, who stayed in Boston for two months. In addition, H, M, T, and N also visited. Seriously, at times my house felt like a hostel, and I loved most of it. The peek was four people staying here at the same time. But once I equipped my hostel with more towels, it went quite smoothly.
In July, I visited a friend in Georgia who was teaching math and computer science to high school kids at a summer camp. She gently forced me to temporarily take over her programming class and, thus, I found myself, in the middle of Bumblefuck, Middle of Nowhere, South Georgia, teaching programming to a bunch of acne-covered 16-year olds who, except for two or three genuinely smart and motivated kids, were only mildly interested in what I had to say to them.
This little trip to Georgia was quite the experience. First of all, I had to fly there. And don't think that nice big Boeing 757s are flying to Valdosta, South Georgia. It's shitty old airplanes that bump around between Atlanta and Valdosta. And I mean old. The kind of old that makes parts of the interior fall apart when you look at them. Not to mention the bored, retired pilots that fly those shitmobiles.
And then Georgia itself. I haven't even seen one fraction of a percent of Georgia, but what I DID see was ugly. No. Let me rephrase: UGLY. It's VERY ugly. No, that still doesn't quite cover it. It's fucking heinous! I can't remember seeing anything in South Georgia that was good looking. Well, nothing... Nothing without a pulse, anyway. Valdosta is a big bug-infested swamp---the large type of bugs that make a sound when you step on them---with big roads, ugly strip-malls, telephone poles, and electricity wires all over the place.
I did meet quite a large number of nice and very smart people, but most of those were on a university campus teaching math. I got the impression that the average inhabitant of that area would fit the description of a big mean son of a bitch driving around in the kind of car they used to invade Iraq within 20 days. Not only that---I suspect that these people take the right to bear arms very seriously. I felt sure that every single person around there had at least one gun. And not the silly type of gun where you have to pull the trigger for every round you want to fire. No, dude. Pull once, fire many. They don't joke around there. Oh, and the average person is, give or take a few pounds, 400 pounds overweight.
Which reminds me. The food. Try ordering a veggie sandwich in Georgia. What you'll get is a fat-infused piece of old bread with cheese. Well, cheese---that yellow, rubbery stuff that melts when you heat it up. Oh, yes, and there's an old green thing that vaguely resembles a genetically engineered spinach leaf.
And very passionate about abortion. I saw a billboard by the road that said ``heartbeat at 3 weeks, brainwaves at 6 weeks.'' A bumper sticker somewhere else: ``No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.''
And every car there is an SUV. And don't be fooled by the name (Sports Utility Vehicle). Those cars relate about as much to sports as their drivers do to a gym. These tanks guzzle fuel at an astounding pace. But that's no problem, because, and I fool you not, a gallon of gas is cheaper than a gallon of water. Now, that explains why people will let their cars (and air-conditioning) running while they go shopping. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) the price of fuel went up a bit recently. Who else is going to pay for a war? It wouldn't be the big power-generating companies? No, no. They only get bigger tax cuts.
Oh, and they've got some historical issues to work through. I did see a very large confederate flag waving somewhere. (The confederate flag is traditionally associated with slavery and racism.) And Georgia just can't make up its mind. In the past 100 years they've had 6 different flags. And, mind you, only in 2003 did they remove the last traces of the confederate flag from their state flag.
And to top it all of: you can buy guns at WalMart---the American equivalent of the Dutch Hema, or the Swiss Jelmoli. Now this is a questionable practice by itself, but I didn't tell you about the jewelry yet. A 15-second run from the guns (within the same WalMart) you can buy gold rings, earrings, and necklaces for your girlfriend. Though I suspect they will give it to you for free if you walk in with a gun.
We made a little one-day trip to Florida where we saw the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean in the morning. That was just beautiful. When we checked out that morning and requested to split the bill, the friendly receptionist (male) looked at me and said: ``Look, if you were a real man, you'd pay the full bill.'' (Holiday Inn.) Fortunately, I couldn't understand a word of what he said because I couldn't really understand anyone with a southern accent. I've been told that my southern accent impression is pretty awful as well. I just smiled at the receptionist---like I always do when I have no idea what people are saying---and we paid the bill. Only afterwards did my companion inform me of the thing the receptionist had said.
Anyway---so much for my fun adventure in South Georgia. All in all it was very interesting, I had a good time, met some very nice people, saw some very strange people, and was quite happy to go back to Massachusetts, where, despite of all the weird stuff, things are much more like home. Oh, and not so unbearably, sizzling hot.
And now my sixth semester at MIT has started. I'm a teaching assistant again, and, this time, it actually involves teaching. Every Thursday I find myself standing in front of 18 acne-covered 20-year olds, telling them everything about proper software engineering. None of them are genuinely interested in what I have to say, but the difference with the kids in summer is that I'm actually giving grades to these kids. So they keep up appearances quite nicely. Teaching is fun, but also stressful at times.
So what's next? I've convinced a few of my colleagues to come do a bike ride to upstate New York in October with me. We'll all be going to a conference and some people, including Frans, the professor, are coming with me on this three day bicycle trip.
So that's the past, the present, and the near future. I have no long-term future plans yet, and, no, I still don't plan to stay in the US. My current favorite cities are, in decreasing order: Amsterdam, Toronto, and London. Job offers for any of these cities are welcome---just give me three more years to finish here. A job vaguely related to computers would be practical, but I'm considering a second career as cook as well.
So that's that. I'll be in Amsterdam in winter. See you then.