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A st-t-t-t-tuttering mentally challenged European in Bawstun

March 14, 2000

Hi all,

Long time no mail. In the meantime I have been skiing, had 3 Dutch visitors, drove to New York and back in one day, had a fight, made up again, defined a goal for my research, had the piano tuned, learned to play a Mozart piano sonata a little better and got 2 job offers. In short: nothing much has happened.

The skiing trip was great. My Swiss brain-half (that's the half that is inactive when I have to do something intelligent) took over as soon as I clicked into my skis. I amazed me. After 7 years of not skiing I managed quite well. After one day I went down a black piste. I also fell, of course. At one point I got overconfident and launched myself up a ramp and discovered that flapping your arms in mid-air really fast only makes you fall harder. Another crash took so long that someone else had the time to get his camera, focus it and still take a photograph of me sliding town the slope on my belly. On the other hand, one crash went so fast that I didn't even have the time to think about stretching my arms. The result was snow so far up my nose that I had trouble breathing for a few seconds. This all took place at Sunday River in Maine. We were with 11 Brandeis students and 4 MIT students. We stayed in a marvelously large house with a steam room, a fire place and more beds than people. The other way around would have been more interesting from a social point of view, though. I was the chief cook and prepared 2 breakfasts (omelets and pancakes) and 2 dinners (pasta and burritos).

Yesterday afternoon I brought Lotte and Floortje to Logan Airport. They have spent 6 days here and we had fun. During the day they went into town (pronounce 'Bawstun') and I worked. Friday we drove to New York in the morning (in a rented car), went up the Empire State building, walked around in Central Park, looked around on Times Square, ate in the Carnegie Deli and drove back to Somerville in the middle of the night. I drove a car in Manhattan! The basic scheme is simple: accelerate as fast as you can to fill up the space between yourself and the car in front of you and honk your horn while doing so. It's a jungle out there.

When walking around on the airport, I wanted to get on the plane too. Amsterdam is far away and I miss it. I love Somerville, Boston and MIT, but God knows I won't live here for longer than a few years at most. Now you know too. I'll prove all of you wrong who predicted that I won't come back to the Netherlands. I think.

After saying good-bye to them I went to MIT to start a job (a 'job' is a task that the computer has to perform) that will (as I am writing this, it is still running. After 24 hours.) process 60 gigabytes of data. Let me try to give you a sense of how much 60 gigabytes is. Let's say that 1 million people live in Amsterdam and that the average household consists of 2 people. A telephone book for Amsterdam thus contains 500.000 entries. Each entry consists of a name (10 characters), an address (25 characters), a zip code (6 characters) and a telephone number (7 digits). Since one byte can hold one character we need 48 bytes per entry. A telephone book of 500.000 entries is thus 24.000.000 bytes long. 60 gigabytes is 2500 telephone books. Let's say a telephone book is 8 cm thick. 2500 telephone books piled up is a pile of 200 meters. That's approximately 2 piles the size of the Dom tower in Utrecht. That pile covers telephone numbers. If every two people in the world would share one phone, these 2 piles of telephone books would cover a third of the population of the Earth. Unfortunately the average two Earthlings don't even have a loaf of bread to share, let alone a telephone. Anyway, I hope I made my point: 60 gigabytes is a LOT of data. I expect the computer to be crunching on that data for 2,5 days before I can start looking at the results.

Computer Science is not a science, really. Anybody who tries to tell you something else is a lying heap of parrot droppings. Computer Science is a craft. We are dressed up carpenters. The most important difference between carpenters and us is that we sell chairs for thousands of dollars and convince the buyers to accept the fact that the chair they just bought will collapse once in a while at unexpected moments possibly causing serious damage and that they shouldn't expect any solution in the near future. It is a crazy ball game but nobody seems to mind. Ever heard an IT consultant complain? Besides that, there is no such thing as 'research' in Computer Science. What CS people do when they do research is that they think of something neat that nobody understands, make it, test it and if it is faster than someone else's neat idea they publish an article from which all the described algorithms are patented so that NOBODY can use their research and quickly add the article to their list of publications because that's what's it all about: publish, publish, publish. Yuck. After that, they write a business plan, get a 40 million dollar investment and finally we'll all end up in Bill Gates' lab.

If you are troubled by insomnia, try reading the average RFC (Request For Comment). RFCs are documents written by people who didn't listen to others and, therefore, came up with their own idea of what the whole world should be doing. This means that there are, on average, 10 variations on each theme. Each one is called 'the standard'. Oh yes, then the wonderful world of abbreviations (WWoA). Let me give you a handful: IP, TCP, RSVP, OSPF, PGP, IGP, UDP, FTP, ARP, RARP, TFTP, SSH, SMTP, IPSEC, ATM, RFC, IETF, W3C, WWW, QoS, DoS, NAT, URL, RTFM and IHTFP. Oh, how I love Computer Science. (I'll send you a postcard with my red lipstick kiss on it if you know more than 20. I'll cut off a curl from my head and send it to you if you know all 25. Now don't try to be funny and organize 128 people to send me the perfect solution. A is excluded from the race since he taught me almost all of them.)

No social things happen(ed). I'm completely, totally deprived of social interaction. I've slowly started talking to my computer and to my bike. I hear voices in my head and they tell me what to do. I see things flying around my head all the time (mainly flies and bees; they make humming sounds. Also butterflies, but they are rarer and less noisy.) Yesterday night I was abducted by two aliens.

I think I have a memory leak in my system because I know I wanted to tell you lots of nice things, but I forgot it all. Oh, yes... I suddenly understand the whole point of fighting over water (another good example are the Golan Heights). Especially WARM water can be an occasion for lots of fun. Let me say no more.

As for America and its inhabitants: the longer I live here, the more I start appreciating them and the more I start disliking them. I can't really explain. There seems to be a discrepancy between what individuals say and what the mass does. Each person I talk to admits that this country has a welfare problem, but the country policy does not change. Everybody despises commercials, but they are everywhere. Everybody hates the fashion in which news is presented on television but apparently it works because networks keep doing it. Everybody dislikes the election campaigns, but they're getting worse by the minute. It's weird. Besides that, I still have problems understanding what people are saying to me. I usually have to ask people to repeat what they said, but it gets rather embarrassing after three times. Normally, the initial reaction is annoyance, but as soon as you admit that you're just a stupid European they'll start talking slowly and use hand-gestures as if you're mentally challenged (that's the way Americans refer to people with a mental handicap.) It's worse if you st-t-t-tutter like me... One day I'll end up being p-p-p-put away in a psychiatric hospital while t-t-t-trying to explain (drooling) that I'm from A-A-A-Amsterdam and that I really didn't t-t-t-take any d-d-d-druhugs. No, really. Europeans are crazy but OH HOLLAND IS SO BEAUTIFUL! Have you ever been there? NO, BUT STOCKHOLM IS REALLY MARVELOUS! That's one typical reaction. The other goes like this: "Oh! Amsterdam... (silence for 5 seconds) ... (a little naughty smile appears) ... (an eye-blink) ... huh huh ... eh heh ... sooooo you're from Aaaamsterdaaaam ... (a friendly push against my shoulder) ...". They can't believe I never smoked marihuana and that I ... ah well.

As for my research project: I finally defined my goal. I will be trying to find a (partial) solution to the Denial-of-Service attacks on big Web sites such as Yahoo! and CNN. It has been in the newspaper about a month ago. I won't find a solution, but I will try to find ways in which routers can assist in stopping (or slowing down) attacks while they're going on. Yahoo! needed 3 hours to stop the attack a few weeks ago. That should be 5 minutes at most. That's my goal. It's very interesting and very topical in light of recent events. It has a spionage and contra-spionage element to it because I have to think of what the next attack will look like and then try to come up with a solution knowing that the attacker knows that I am thinking about his attack, etc.

I have new photos, but I am very lazy. I'll put them on the Web site soon. I'll let you know when they're up there.

You probably discovered by now that I have totally run out of interesting topics. Don't hold you breath for my next e-mail. Let that be said. Good-bye, farewell and have a nice life. Don't get run over by a truck or something equally gruesome.


P.S. A total stranger asked me to be put on this mailing list after reading the mails on my Web site. I didn't, by the way.

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Updated: 2004/09/06