America the Great
These days the news media has become terribly boring, more so than usual. For a while, I was riveted, following the crisis in Wall Street. There were some interesting articles, and a lot of questions. That quickly gave way to a dialog in the media over whether we were witnessing the demise of the American Empire. Were these the last days of Rome? What would America do with a financial sector in crisis? The New York Times’s lead writers, Dowd and Friedman, wrote, as they always do, silly articles explaining exactly what was happening, so that their silly readers could make silly sense of things. Dowd’s piece was entitled Are We Rome? Tu Betchus!. For those of you who haven’t been bombarded: “Tu Betchus” is a Latinized version of “You betcha”, which Sarah Palin famously overuses. Haha.
Yes, we are constantly bombarded with Obama, McCain, Palin, and the Empire. I’m tired of it. I’ve had enough politics for the next 10 years. Thank God the elections are soon. And the whole Empire thing got old as soon as it was born. A friend at work sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal that explained that, no, these are not the last days of Rome. It was well written and well reasoned. A relief amid the hysteria. The article also held that “America will continue to be number one”. What an uninteresting statement. There are lots of people in this country who keep saying, loudly, “America is the best country in the world”. I suspect they have no idea why.
I thought I’d write a post on why I decided to come to this country. It’s a personal account, and there are no grandiose adjectives in it.
My idea of coming to America became solidly formed around the time I was 22. I was in my fourth year (out of six) of Electrical Engineering at the Universidad Politécnica in Madrid, and was very unhappy with my university experience. I hated my school, and thought I had made a terrible mistake by not studying Mathematics. At the end of my third year, I had gone to the school of Mathematics, to tell them I wanted to get a second major there, and to ask which subjects they would waive.
You have to understand that in Spain, this is a big deal. Academic departments are entirely independent of each other, so that if you’re at the school of Electrical Engineering at the Politécnica, and want to take classes at the school of Mechanical Engineering, also at the Politécnica, you still have to go through the whole admissions process in that school. Changing your major is in general a bad idea. The school of Mathematics, even though it was next door to Electrical Engineering, belonged to a different university - the Complutense.
Back to waiving: after a long deliberation, they determined that they would waive my Calculus and my Linear Algebra, and since they were nice guys, they would also throw in Multivariate Calculus. They would not waive Differential Equations, nor Complex Analysis, nor Probability. The reason for that was that at their school, for those classes, they offered five hours a week of lectures. My school had offered only four hours a week.
I was furious. This clearly told me that things would not be any different in that school. I sat on some of the classes, and found them dry and boring. This place might kill my interest in Math. I decided it was best to learn on my own. By the first months of my fourth year at the Politécnica I was so unhappy that, for a brief period, I was about to drop out. My idea was that I would get an undergraduate degree in Math at an American university. They seemed to be the best, and I envied the flexibility of their study plans. In the end, I continued with my Electrical Engineering studies.
Up to that point, I had admired America for its many top universities, and for the many textbooks they produced. I had rebelled against my teachers, and had learned many classes from American textbooks, instead of from class notes, as they wanted. The books were fine - not outstanding, but much better than notes from boring classes. There were a few American books that I had read in those years that had had a much greater impact on me. One was the classic Calculus by Michael Spivak. That book was alive, full of wit, personality, and deep ideas. I loved it. I had also devoured The Bell Curve, a thick technical study of the role of intelligence in America. There was a polemic around it, which I thought was a sanctimonious one. The Bell Curve impressed me, not so much because of the results of the research it described, but because of how well written it was; how reasoned, and scholarly, and critical and clear. The central idea was that in America, the single factor that best predicts a person’s success is intelligence, above gender and race and social class. That this single theme was developed so richly into a hefty tome, and that it didn’t get repetitious, was astounding to me.
Then something great happened: the explosion of the World Wide Web, and the arrival of Amazon.com. At home we had been craving good access to books, and Amazon gave us the best possible.
In the final months of my fourth year of studies, I decided to teach myself programming, and I started looking around for good books. Programming was interesting, but there was something more to it that I was not getting, something mysterious, I was sure of that.
One happy day, the Expert Editors at Amazon (it’s a shame they disappeared) put together a list of the best books on Computer Science. I was particularly interested in one of them, and ordered it. I started reading as soon as it arrived. Within five pages, I knew this book would change everything for me. Computer Science and Math were siblings! This book was deep, exciting, fun, difficult. I was obsessed, and I ignored everything else. The book’s name was Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, and it was written by two MIT professors, Gerald Sussman and Harold Abelson. They have put the book online (here).
About half way through reading, and doing every single exercise, I came to what I saw as a logical contradiction in the book. I wrote an email to Abelson and Sussman telling them about it. Within 24 hours, I had a reply from Sussman, who copied Abelson and two other people. It was a very detailed response. Sussman had gone over my email, paragraph by paragraph, elaborating on each. Finally, he explained how I was wrong. I noted with pride that the key idea to show this was not present in the book. I was astonished by the quality and promptness of Sussman’s reply. I sent him an email thanking him, and again, within a day, he replied hoping I enjoyed the rest of the book.
If there was any doubt about American university, this had dispelled it. I finished my courses and graduated. I continued to learn Computer Science on my own. I held a job for two years in the telecommunications industry. I loved my team, and it was a good job, but still I dreamed of coming to America for graduate school. By the time the big crisis came to the telecommunications sector, I had already started looking for fellowships, and researching American schools. In 2003, I got my first admission letter, from the University of Indiana, and I decided to take a one-month backpacking trip across New Zealand - an old dream of mine. Two more universities admitted me while I was traveling, and then, at the last minute, when I was almost sure I’d go to Boston for school, Columbia University sent me an acceptance letter. New York it would be.
I was impressed that I was accepted to a good graduate school in Comp. Sci. when I had no formal, accredited education in the subject. I was even more impressed that I wasn’t asked to take any catch-up type of class. Only one subject, Algorithms, required negotiation. I went to talk to the professor, Cliff Stein, who had co-authored a legendary book in the field. We chatted about my background, and he decided I was ready to take his class. I enjoyed his teaching and ended up getting an A. My best friend from the Comp. Sci. department, Ryan, had studied History as an undergraduate. I admired the flexibility of this system. I had done the right thing coming here. I loved my time at Columbia. I admired the quality and openness of the professors, the seriousness of the home-works, the ambition of the students. It was not perfect, but this was a real university experience, nothing like those six bitter years that I mostly wasted.
There has been much more in my time in America. There has been friendship, adventure, disappointment, loss, anger, happiness. There has been a lot of life going on, and I have learned and grown. I have worked myself to the bone, and I have been rewarded.
I have a lot of respect for this country, but no patience for idiots waving flags.