On Sunday last, history was made! Not because some election results were out, another 48 hours remained for that then! Its because I went to the first election campaign of my life! Its quite ironical that 22 years were spent in India, but the first happened in just 3 months here in the USA! That is because Hilary Clinton came to George Mason University to campaign for Obama and for change. Lots of music and excitement before the event, hell many waited there for almost 3 to 4 hours! I first thought it was a rock show on a Sunday evening! When I was returning home, they had blocked the path to the bus stop, and asked me to go round the dorms. When I asked, the nice policeman said “Hilary is here”. I was like, WOW! Seriously?!
So I skipped the plan of going home. Decided to take the last bus; wait and watch for the 1.5 hours that I had till then. My left-brain was screaming saying why do you care! Go home, and relax. Guess my right-brain prevailed here. Hilary came by helicopter, we saw it go past overhead. The democrats started their rants and promises. I had to leave before Hilary got started though. Two days later, Obama was president elect!
I was recently discussing the US elections and related problems on the North Virginia Linux User Group mailing list. America uses high-end Microsoft Windows systems at the polling booths. Their central server is on Windows too. They have touchscreen, for what purpose I do not know, because they still ask voters to mark their votes on paper. Different polling stations scan this vote into the system in a different way, some use OCRs. All the data at the computers are being recorded on a memory stick, not on the hard-drive! Then at the end of the day, the memory stick is sent to the counting station in the city or state. The above information is by no means authentic. This is what I have learned (and perhaps imagined some parts of it!), but at present I believe all of this is true. That means India is way ahead on this front! The Electronic Voting Machine is a work of a genius, as Einstein says, “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” Read more on this in my email to NOVALUG.
Obama for change, and change I hope he will bring. I have built a strong support for him over the last few days. Most of it is because of this. I like the idea of America’s first Chief Technology Officer! Obama also believes in transparency, and bringing blogs and web-cast into the government, and getting common man to be able to directly communicate with the people right at the top, including Obama himself! I love the fact that most of the funding for his campaign was brought in from small contributions from random people visiting his website! Its time someone did something about the monopoly in telephone and broadband services, and I see that Barack has that on his mind too! For once, a President is thinking about solving internal problems. For once, someone is not delusional with the false belief that USA is the only developed country in the world, and it needs to fix every other country that exists! Obama also believes in choice and free market philosophy. His all-out support for developing Math and Science in the country is truly astounding! He offers science as the only solution to most of America’s problems, including education, employment and trade! His reform of the patent system by opening it up for citizen review is simply brilliant! Finally companies like Microsoft have someone to check all the junk patents that they keep proposing. If I have interpreted what the coming of Obama really means to the world, and if he really is able to fulfill his promises, I am sure good times are coming!
P.S.: For all those Indians who are telling me Obama is bad for India because he is against the BPO industry, I have only one answer, I am against that industry too! Besides, contrary to popular belief, IT and the BPO is not what India really depends on, certainly not what is running our country. India is a nation ready to become a superpower, and the core industries and the human resource that India generates has much to do with it.
So its been 2 months since I landed in America. Time flies!
I have had some great times, even though lifestyle hasn’t changed much from the college life we led in India. There are various aspects of living in America that took time to get used to. I worked at the bookstore for a month, and it was hard to maintain punctuality. Keeping time was not something we made a significant effort to do in India. 8:00 AM is not the same as 8:05 AM here. I learned that the hard way!
The biggest shocker was, however, the telephone services here. We are so used to “incoming free” and “free local SMS” in India, that when AT&T charged me heavily for incoming calls I felt outraged! As if it wasn’t enough that they do not let anyone buy a postpaid connection without credit history and SSN, they had to fleece me on prepaid!
The cost of books is also astonishing here! Its usually at least 10 times its cost in my country! It is as if the American leaders are trying to discourage their kids to use books! What ever happened to paperbag, all books here have to look like a beautiful hardbound Worldbook encyclopaedia! No student ever asked for that!
Food was said to be cheap here. Unfortunately of all places, I chose to be at Fairfax, which ranks among the most expensive county in America. Apart from a heafty rent, I felt the pinch spending on food. I haven’t even had many cuisines here, like I used to have in India. No Chinese, Mongolian or Italian (save the pizzas) for 2 whole months now! Thanks to Patel Bros however, we have access to a lot of Indian food and groceries. I found my beloved Maggi hot and sweet tomato chili sauce! – the secret ingredient in all my cooking.
I managed to squeeze in some DotA nights here too! Thanks to a few friends I made here, who are Warcraft 3 crazy, I never had to renounce my religion from my MNIT days!
I have a teaching assistantship now, at Computer Resources Department (so no more customer service at the bookstore)! I am assistant to a Unix Administrator, not a professor. That basically means I have to do the same linux support job and server management that I volunteered for at my undergraduate university in India, and whats more, I get great pay for it!
Weather is getting cold here. We have started to consisteantly hit the 50 degree fahrenheit at nights. I am looking forward to my first winter in USA. I have seen cold winters at Jaipur in India, so I am not nervous, though I have never been to subzero cetigrade places.
Fridays are a practical holiday here. No classes or appointments on Fridays. Infact the office hours are shorter on Fridays than even Saturdays in many places at the University. So I consistantly get a 3 day weekend. That helps me keepup with my various non-academic interests like computer gaming, surfing the internet, catching up on friends blogs, watching movies and taking part in flamewars on mailing lists. Not that doing 2 subjects a semester is any kind of a load worth mentioning, it is however taxing to sit in 3 hour long lectures with just one 10 minute break in between.
I constantly get to travel to Washinton DC. Went there last Thursday too, to attend the Linux Day 2008 organized by Novell and HP. Their target audience was the industry, but I learned about many new technologies, and got a wind of whats coming up in the Linux domain in near future!
Seems like a decently long update, so I will stop raving now. I am yet to cover many more interesting events. Hope I get other nights like tonight soon.
I am in Fairfax, Virginia, and am having fun! I got here on the 3rd of August by Lufthansa. The flight journey from India was physically very taxing. I have never been on flight for 19 hours and this was a new experience. I enjoyed a lot on the Lufthansa flight. I had mixed reviews from friends about Lufthansa, some said the seats are crammed and the service is poor while a few others told me Lufthansa’s service is even better than British Airways! So it was for me to see. It turns out, I got lucky again. I had a good journey! The seats were awesome, and the service was good. Food was nice. I saw Speed Racer (again), and Kung-fu Panda on the LCD Monitor.
I landed on Frankfurt airport, and it was just what I expected it to be. Massive! Took a train to reach the departure gate of my connecting flight. I was disappointed however, because I was unable to call home. The phone kiosks had all their instructions in German! Most airport authorities only understood German! I actually felt confused, because in India, English is such a common language, and telephone booths operated by a human is such a common sight! So much for a developed economy! I made a few American friends on the airport though. They were waiting for the same flight, and were kind enough to help me contact home.
If I had known that the connecting flight, which was operated by United Airlines, was going to be bumpy, and without a good screen, I would have not slept at all on the first leg of my journey. I had new friends to talk to though, Indian and American, so I had a good time.
Even at Washington DC airport, making an international call was difficult. A word of advice for all those traveling to America for the first time, and without a phone… Please carry International calling cards, all the phone kiosks need one and there are no humans around to help. Its just you and the machine! 😀
The DC Airport is cute. It had a full black theme, the building’s walls were a new concept of black (I think asbestos, it was not cement for sure). I waited outside for an hour for my pickup to arrive, looking at the vast landscape with cars (even some awesome ones… Rolls Royce, Daimler, Hummer and Porche! ) dotting the circular highway road.
My first meal on American soil was at McDonalds! I enjoyed the food. It is better than the McDonalds burgers in India.
I am all set for this new phase. A lot happened since, I got an apartment, got a part-time job, registered for courses, met many new people, and visited many new places.
Its 5:14 PM here on August 20. Time for my department orientation. More (long overdue) updates coming up shortly.
Got my VISA stamping done today! All that amount of preparation turned out to be useless! Here’s the story:
I got my interview scheduled for today, the 3rd of July, at the Chennai consulate, and I got the 0730 Hrs slot 😦 ! Had to get up early… I had prepared my documents over the previous week – All the fee receipts, and father’s bank statements, balance sheets, IT returns, chartered accountant statements, affidavits – got it all arranged in a “harmonium file” as it is called, because of the way it looks 🙂 .
My father drove me to the venue in the morning. I got to the embassy at 7:00 AM and as I walked to the gates, an auto driver at the auto stand stopped me and showed a photo sample, said this is how a VISA photo should look like, 50mm x 50mm with a white background! It struck me just then.. what a business strategy! Catch the VISA appicants in the last hour, and tell them they need a new photo, and then tell them you know where it can be got in 5 min! He could demand a fortune for that favour! But I was having none of that, I had all my papers checked by my counsellor at Edwise International, and so these things were already covered. I was ready for my stamping.
We got to enter immediately, being in the first time slot. First up, there were counters for fingerprint. I just got reminded here, America is the epitome of Hypocrisy! They say it is for their security, what goes of my privacy?! Even before I land in the USA, they have my fingerprints, as though I am a criminal! Anyway, had to do this too, so went on with the procedure. The lady at the counter took my prints, and asked for some important documents like the appointment letter, the VISA fee receipt, the DS-156, 157 and 158 forms, my I-20, SEVIS Fee payment receipt, my passport, and my degree certificate (without my marksheet), and compiled it into a small file. I then walked with my Harmonium File and this new transparent file to the next building, into what was called the VISA lounge. It was still only 07:15 AM, so I sat there, watching the others constantly shuttle between the bubble-top water dispenser and their seats. The news channel TIMES NOW was put on, in silent, on a LCD screen. I just got informed, that India lost to Pakistan last night, in cricket that is. Pakistan could chase a mammoth total of 308 with ease!
The VISA Officers didnot come at 0730 hrs. No sight of them even at 0745 hrs. By the time they got started, it was almost 0810 hrs. I got my turn by 0820 hrs. My VO was an American, wore rimless glasses, and had brown hair, well most of it was gone, his forehead was bare, but anyway… Here’s how it went:
Me: Good Morning Sir!
VO: Good morning! Can I have the file
(I gave him the transparent file. Remember, I am still holding my Harmonium File, with my marksheets, bank statements, mutual fund papers, property sale papers, my father’s sponsoring letter, a CA Certificate, a loan sanction letter and a whole bunch of other stuff)
VO: So why have you chosen George Mason University?
Me: GMU is good at Computer Network Design. I wish to specialize in this field because it has good scope in India, and there aren’t any colleges offering this as a specialization degree.
(WOW! I knew that was it! All the points on his checklist must have been ‘tick’, with this one 2 line answer!)
VO: Ok, good. What do your parents do?
Me: They are both into business. My father is into… (And I explained my parent’s work)
VO: Ok. Your VISA will reach you by courier.
Me: (Huh! WTF! You dont even want to know who my sponsor is? Or if he has sufficient funds. You dont care if I return to India or not?) Thank you sir!
…And that was it! I returned home, with the 10 rupees I had hid inside my file. I hear many had problems getting their VISA. Orkut is full of accounts where VISAs were denied on grounds that “You sound like a potential immegrant” or “I dont believe your father can sustain after funding your education”, or simply, “I am not happy with your answers, come back for another interview later”…!!
Anyway, this was a good experience. This was the only thing in the entire procedure of applying for a master’s degree in the USA, the outcome of which was not in my hands. It seems I am good to go now! Exactly 1 month from now, I will be just a few meters away from Barak Obama!
At the moment, I am just gearing up for this next curb…
I recently visited both the places for gaining more information about admissions in the US and the UK for graduate studies. I found a remarkably acute difference in the ways the proceedings were handled at the two places.
At the American Consulate, the first thing I was asked to do was deposit my original drivers license and my cell phone at the counter, and log my name and address at the library gates. I could not help feel intimidated with all the blast doors and metal detectors, all I wanted was some information! Inside the Library, there was a small room for the USEFI and everyone were expected to maintain a lot of silence.
At the USEFI, there was one lady attending the visitors, and for any question I asked, she had one answer, refer the xyz guide on the rack behind you. I asked if I could have a session with the counselor who could guide me specific to my profile, she said, their adviser had resigned, moreover, I need a membership, once they employ one! I finally got up to read some of the guides, when the lady pointed to the top rack saying only those are available for free! Besides, their entire collection was just 4 racks. Internet has a lot more to offer.
The British Council was a lot different. First and foremost, I was allowed my cell phone! When I entered the Library, I saw this huge hall with people actually using the facility. There were lots of journals lying around. There was a lounge with VH1 running on a huge LCD. This brings us back to the very fundamental question, why should libraries always have pin-drop silence? Here we had a library with a built-in lounge and good music!
At the desk, the counselor actually had hands-on information, and I was given a lot of pointers with help of the Education UK website as well as pamphlets on scholarships and University ratings (apparently the Gov. of UK rates universities’ programs on a scale of 5, they do not follow rankings). More over, I was allowed free access to 250 university prospectus, which were useful. I even got to attend a special seminar conducted by the University of Sheffield that evening. They are one of the 20 Russell Group Universities, which is quite prestigious.
The simplicity practiced at the British council is very inviting compared to the hostile atmosphere at the USEFI. It could be argued that the USEFI is located inside the American Consulate and hence the added security could be justified, but the irony and the contrast was too much to digest. All this is of course, my personal opinion, and I am sure there are others out there who appreciate USEFI’s guidance.