System Overload (graduation speech)

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One of the biggest data centers in the world is situated in Camp Williams just above Lake Utah. It has more than 1 million square feet and it has cost more than 2 billion dollars to build. The data center is home to the many servers of the National Security Agency (NSA). The agency uses them to store the data they collect on a daily basis with a collection of programs under the codename PRISM. It basically means they collect everything on everyone who uses the internet.

Surely, they say it’s just ‘metadata’, which means that only the information gets stored about when, where, how, how long and with whom you communicate. A former deputy director of the NSA, who was kind enough to speak to us about this ordeal in Washington D.C., told us this doesn’t mean that if you write in an email something like “I hate the NSA”, red lights will immediately start flashing in Utah to attract some NSA-workers attention.

His side of the story is that they only look at the data when there is a proper cause to investigate a certain person and their network. Using specific techniques they can zoom in on lots of details, and then they judge if the information is useful. Rest assured, they ob-vi-ous-ly never use these skills for, say, a background check on some hot Mormon they’ve met in the streets of Salt Lake City.

I know that wanting to prevent another 9/11 sparked the need to upgrade this enormous data surveillance strategy. But what I forgot to ask the NSA-director is who exactly was the one to come up with the idea to just absorb everything out there that you could get their hands on and then deal with the processing, investigating and concluding later.

Open Cable

After nine weeks of this Fellowship, I must conclude that the idea must’ve come from a former WPI fellow. You see, my brain is wired to operate as a journalist and a writer. I feel like it is an open cable that has many information lines running through it. Its outlets are insatiable. I naturally try to absorb whatever crosses my path, whoever says something interesting, or just things that look, feel, smell, taste and sound unusual, different or plain weird. My brain works like PRISM and it has never been more ‘on’ than during this fellowship.

I’m probably not the first WPI Fellow to have felt this way. During this fellowship you discover the need to take in as much as you can, stretching the memory storage of your servers to the limit. It does seem like there has been some system overload. Lately there have been random images popping up. I’ve been sitting in one of the many reclining chairs of my St. Thomas faculty apartment and suddenly blurted out random stuff, like:

“Aerogel!” Then I remembered this was an almost see through substance on display in a small corner of the gigantic Air and Space Museum in D.C. One of the five Smithsonian museums I visited on a Monday afternoon. Aerogel is used to hold certain space materials when they’re not supposed to get lost. A mind blowing piece of material I’d never seen in my life before.

“Octopus fingers!” When pooring soap into my hands and commanding me to “wash’em, soap’em and wash’em” a bathroom attendant in Chicago’s Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Bar told me that when he was my age, he was nicknamed Octopuss fingers. “I could wash’em so fast it looked like I had eight hands going at it.”

“Deep fried twinkies on a stick!” At the Minnesota State Fair I’ve seen thousands of people standing in an endless line to pay gladly for every kind of deep fried food, served on a stick. My host family also pointed out I took a picture there of a rare occasion: I caught the biggest bore of the State on camera while standing briefly on his feet.

Profound?

Granted none of this information seems really profound at this point. That’s why I suggest that David McDonald will tell the class of 2015 to bring extra brain storage when coming to the US. It would surely help answering the question that has been on every ones lips during the last leg of our tour: “What has been the most surprising thing to you?”

It would’ve just been incredible to be able to immediately sift through all my stored data and come up with an answer that makes sense, that proves why you picked me for this fellowship. In stead I’ve been stammering “Aerogel… Octopus fingers… Deep Fried Twinkies on a Stick!” If I’d only brought extra storage, I’d have been able to say right there on the spot that one of the most surprising things of this fellowship is to learn what American generosity really entails. Sure, we’ve heard about American billionaires who, as a pass time, invest large amounts of money in causes they like. But I’ve now gotten to learn that generosity is also part of every Americans life. If you guys feel strongly about something, you’ll make sure it exists, you will adopt it, take care of it and root for it.

That does include the media. Your generosity keeps non-profits alive like ProPublica, MinnPost and the Texas Tribune. They offer investigations where general media outlets seem to have trouble to finance that important part of our profession.

Generosity

I’ve gotten to see another aspect of your generosity with the host families that have taken me in, driven me around, showed me a good time, introduced me to their friends and families, cooked and asked interesting questions. That has been truly overwhelming and I thank you from the bottom of my heart - In the Twin Cities, the Scott family and Thom Hanson. In Ely, Cynthia Stokes. And also the host families to other fellows that were kind enough to invite me to come along for dinner and drinks.

And then there is the WPI itself. First of all a big thank you to all the donators to the Institute. Without your generosity, we simply wouldn’t have been here. Thanks, David McDonald and your group of fantastic staff, volunteers and friends. I promise you I’ve stored all the meetings we’ve had and the cities we’ve seen on my hard drive.

Finally I want to thank my colleagues, the other fellows. Without you guys, this wouldn’t have been one of the greatest adventures of my life. Thank you for your friendship, your insights, your talent and your care. For making sure my enormous legs wouldn’t be stuck too long in a van or a taxi. For bearing with my odd diet of no meat, thus no hamburgers. Thanks for your jokes, your great conversations, your parties and your awesomeness.

It has truly been an honour to be part of the class of 2014 which could’ve easily been the Best Group Ever, if only we’d thought to bring more data storage servers upon arrival.

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