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Americans, jews and a cat

February 12, 2000

This mail will take you a long time to read (10-15 minutes), so I advise you to print it out and read it when you feel like it. I suggest you use it as toilet literature and afterwards you could apply it for other purposes, too. I'm always willing to lend a helping hand.

Although I am slowly slipping into a regular daily grind, I thought it was time for an update.

MIT is a fantastic place. The best way I can describe this to you is using the image of a surfer *in* a wave that is bent over him speeding forwards at 50 km/h. It is what every surfer tries to achieve and it must be an enormous kick to actually be in that wave. Well, that's what it feels like here. Things happen *so* fast here that blinking your eyes a little too long can cause severe damage to your career.

People work fast here. Meetings are held standing in the hallway. They take no longer than 5 minutes and the debates are very straightforward. The better opinion wins. Not egos; it's minds that matter here. Staff and students are equal in that sense. Staff earns more money, though.

Approximately every other day there is a seminar somewhere on the campus where I go to listen. Famous people come here to talk. For example, on February 15 Noam Chomsky will be here to talk. It's great. Subjects range from general issues to very technical talks. I love both. The speed with which these people handle their issues is crushing. You can't let your full attention slip away for a moment or you will be lost for the rest of the talk.

Before I came here I was very afraid I would be very dumb in comparison to the others. That turned out to be half true, half not true. Everybody simply knows a lot more than I do. After every conversation I had with somebody, I have to dive in books and articles to find out what the hell they were talking about. With group talks I mainly listen, simply because I do not having anything to add. I'm quite content if I understand what people are talking about. I'm slowly getting more comfortable, though, and yesterday I even added something to a discussion.

Of course the attacks on the big Internet sites is a hot topic. We are discussing what the attack really consisted of (the companies don't tell), how the attacker(s) did it and what there can be done against it. The conclusion for now is that there is nothing much we *can* do, by the way. We strongly suspect that when Yahoo! announced after three hours or so that they "solved" the problem, the attackers really stopped attacking. There was nothing much Yahoo! could have done. It's an inherent problem of the currently used protocols.

My project is not going very well at the moment. I'm having a really, really slow start. It's like I'm stuck in the mud. There are so many things I don't know. I have to read an article that describes a certain data structure and an algorithm (small, fast router table based on a binary tree that uses the bits in an IP address to do smart lookups. I took the words out of your mouth there, right? Well, it sounds easy to the practiced listener, but it really isn't), but to fully understand *that*, I have to read ten gazillion other articles and books, because scientists have the annoying habit of constantly referring to each others articles. The result is a spaghetti of articles that I have to untangle. I'm not very happy with that. I learn a lot while doing it, but it's like having to take 20 steps backwards to only slowly stumble forwards after that. I hope I will end up sprinting, but I'm not so sure now.

So, at the moment it's quite frustrating and I'm a little scared that my supervisor will come to me and ask me what I did so far. The answer will surely disappoint him.

Actually, I'm quite sure he will not ask. The relation between students and staff is very different than what I am used to. In the Netherlands you take classes and everybody follows the 'main stream'. You simply do what you have to do and you obediently make your exams. There is no room for initiative. Here they expect you to do all the thinking. The staff is not here to guide projects but rather to give feedback. And, of course, when the work is done, they put their name on the article.

Dan the cat is funny. Who would have thought I would actually start liking it? The animal is real hairy so I caress him every morning to rid it of its hairs, which results in a big cloud of hair flying around the house. As a result, the beast starts purring real loud (I actually know a human being that does that too. What goes around, comes around.) and meanwhile it bumps its head into objects which worries me a tiny bit.

Yesterday I was at a Hillel dinner. Hillel is a MIT related Jewish student group. There are approximately 900 (!) members. For a European Jew it's quite a strange experience to suddenly be "one of them all" and not an exception on the rule. The Jews are very visible here. A lot of them wear a kipah (pope thingy on the head) and there are many who have tzitzit (twined threads, worn by religious Jews) hanging from under their clothes. Anyway, before dinner there was a religious Friday evening service. In Europe there are 2 types of Jewish communities: the orthodox and the liberal. Here there are 3: reform, conservative and orthodox. Both orthodoxes are the same, but conservative matches the European liberal. The American reform movements does not exist in Europe. I have strong suspicions as to why this is, but that's another mail. I'm not getting to the point, stop interrupting me. Good. Friday evening there were 2 different services: orthodox and conservative. It's not as simple as that though, because there are 2 different types of conservative: egalitarian (women sit together with men) and non-egalitarian (guess). There were 2 services yesterday: orthodox and egalitarian-conservative. I went to the conservative. But guess what; the orthodox service was in the same room, but the room was temporarily divided by a thin wooden wall. Now you have to know that the orthodox movement is larger than all others, so there were about 25 people in the orthodox part of the room and about 10 in the conservative part. They were singing so loud that I had trouble concentrating on the service I was in. I thought that was very symbolic, but that's another mail (pronounce 'war'), too.

The American pronunciation of Hebrew is very funny. They haven't got the r-r-r-rolling 'r', but they have an 'r' as in 'are'. They have other physical problems too (Hebrew has a 'g' as in Dutch, but Americans consider that to be a troubling variation of a throat disease), so I had problems keeping track in the Hebrew text where we were because the pronunciation was so different from what I am used to hearing. Anyway, it was a nice service and I felt really comfortable in a synagogue for the first time in 3 years. I think the average age of the people present had something to do with that. I plan to go more often. Not primarily for religious reasons, but Friday evening 6 PM is a good time to focus on something completely different for an hour, so why not in a synagogue?

After the service there was a dinner for everybody (orthodox + conservative) which was very nice. The food was not very good, but that was probably due to the fact that it was Kosher. After dinner we sang many songs and the after-dinner prayer which was a unique experience, too. I consider that to be one of the nicest prayers there is and I like to sing that prayer very much. Actually, it only really happens when I'm together with my Swiss family so that's why it has a special ring to it for me. Well, these people were in a rush. It was almost a race who would finish first! Sometimes a melody would be the same as I know it (if I was able to discern a melody at all), but as soon as I joined in, they would change to a melody I didn't know. It was fun anyway.

I had fun, but the best part of the evening was definitely Joshua. Joshua is a guy from France who lived in Zürich; 2 blocks away from my grandmother. He knows Swiss German, so that was the second time in 2 days I was talking Swiss German to somebody in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I haven't met a single Dutch person yet. Joshua was really nice and I hope to see more of him.

During dinner I suddenly realized that it was funny that I had traveled across the ocean and ended up sitting and talking to people that have the same background and traditions as I do, although we were raised in different countries and by different people. Of course I knew that in theory already, but it suddenly struck me again yesterday. I guess that's the whole point of being Jewish. I actually never got the real point behind being Jewish, but that's probably another point of being Jewish, but I'm losing you.

Another important difference with the Netherlands is that universities are very closely related to (start-up) companies. I'm not sure what I actually want the coming few years, but I *do* know that this is a great place and I know that I should try to create opportunities here for either further academic work or for my commercial future. The atmosphere around starting your own project/company is totally different here, too: it's strange *not* being involved in a startup company or owning shares in at least one. It's a normal thing to get into business. Enterpreneurship is in this people's blood: that's what got them where they are. These people dare to take a risk.

Today I went with a few European Club people to the Science Museum. I have a theory about that museum. They should call it the "See Americans In Action Museum". This museum would have *never* survived in Europe. One example is the electricity/lightning show. Well, the lady was supposedly explaining things. The only scientist she named was, of course, Benjamin Franklin and the show mainly consisted of lightning bolts generated by a van de Graaff ('wendegref') generator. All of this was accompanied by Orff's Carmina Burana, just for the sheer effect of it. I learned nothing about electricity but a lot about Americans. One interesting aspect about the museum was that you could push all kinds of buttons and see and hear many things, but there was no explanation of what happened anywhere. It had more to do with a social activity center than something that was even remotely related to science. This museum turned science into something mystic and spectacular thereby increasing the gap between scientists and non-scientists. It was a bad, bad museum.

I saw and heard a few shocking things there: the winner is definitely a woman who was looking at a screen where you could see the number of Americans. It stated that one was born every few seconds, one dies every few seconds, one emigrated every 198 seconds and one immigrated every 37 seconds. The woman was mainly interested in that last fact and made a very racist remark, to say the least. I was shocked. I was standing there with a few Germans who could not believe what they heard either. Did I already mention the father who threatened his kid to "beat him up right here and right now if he wouldn't come".

In general, I find people to treat their children more as small adults than as children. I hear children talk about things I can't believe. Maybe it's wrong to think that children should grow up in a protected environment and that they should be exposed to the ugly world step by step guided by their parents. That concept is totally not applied here. I see children play with each other in a way that makes me happy that my younger brother and sister were not raised in this place.

Did you know that 40% of the children can't read or write properly when they leave school? That's unfair, especially in the light of the fact that this society is getting more and more technical and mind-oriented. Craftsmanship is a dying institution. It will not take long anymore before people will start dying of illiteracy here. That's not a joke. I think this is the toughest challenge this country will have to face the coming years: basic education. If you look at the skin color of the average MIT student (yellow), you realize that a shift has already taken place.

After the museum I went for a walk through Boston with F. He's a German Computer Scientist doing MIT Sloan School (Business Administration, Bedrijfskunde). It was my first Boston-walk I had since I got here and it *is* a marvelous and fantastic city. I'll make sure to go there more often.

F is the 3rd German (the first two being C and M, my housemates) with which I ended up talking about the war. My view on Germans has significantly changed. I find these people (that have my age) very courageous in their sense of responsibility and sensitivity towards the war. They don't avoid talking about it and in a strange way I feel a common ground with them when talking about the war: we both look powerless to the past we share in a certain, twisted, way. To feel that was a revelation.

Something else: my Dutch is already slipping away. While writing this e-mail I noticed that I couldn't think of a Dutch word while I knew what the English word was. It irritated me so much that I took a dictionary to find the Dutch translation. That's sick, you know. It's not so strange, though: I spend days without speaking one Dutch word to anybody. I don't read Dutch books and I don't see Dutch people. The only foreign language I am confronted with is (Swiss) German.

The missing has set in, too. I miss (most of) you all! Loneliness is slowly clasping her cold grip around my neck and that is hard sometimes. It's paradoxical, because one of the reasons that I wanted to leave, is the fact that my world got too small. I miss my good friends, my family and a handful of other people. It's strange how their function suddenly becomes apparent when they're no longer around me. Friends are more than just a good way of spending your time. I learn a lot about myself. I suspect this feeling of loneliness and heimwee will get worse over time, but there is enough around here to counter it.

The film is full, so I expect to 'publish' some photos on the Web in maybe a week or so. I still haven't traced a scanner yet, but I haven't tried either, so that may actually be a suitable point for optimization.

OK. Thanks for the patience.

Thomer

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Copyright © 1994-2011 by Thomer M. Gil
Updated: 2004/09/06