Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A little math

I plan to post something more substantial tomorrow, but I saw a news story today that I wanted to share.

I always keep an eye on the science news, because, as I mentioned previously, I'm something of a geek.

Anyway, this story on a couple of Hungarian mathematicians was up today. It seems no one in the world could get a computer to play "Go" at the same level as a skilled human player.

No one, that is, until now!

That's right, a couple of Hungarian mathematicians figured out the algorithm that gets computers to play the moves that previously only human intuition managed to understand. Way to go abstract math.

Interestingly enough, Hungary is widely regarded as the home of many of the greatest modern mathematicians. Unfortunately most of the great minds pack up and leave for wealthier nations before they do their greatest work.

Abstract math, however, continues to flourish here in Hungary. This is mostly because there is not a lot of capitol investment required for research.

All you need is a blackboard, some chalk, and maybe a Go board.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Flashback to Szóda's Youth


The following is a blog entry from back when I was posting on Yahoo 360.




My dog eats poo. This upsets me a great deal. I sometimes console myself with the fact that she’s picky about it. Here on the sidewalks of Budapest she has a regular smorgasbord to choose from, and only rarely does she find the variety of poo she enjoys. But when she does…

If I don’t watch her, she’ll dive right in. It makes me unreasonably angry. And she knows that. She waits for the moments when I’m distracted. When I catch her in the act she gets all meek, ears pinned down and the puppy-dog eyes. But my anger often overwhelms me, and I scold her in horribly broken Hungarian.

I’ve read about it online, and there doesn’t seem to be anything horribly wrong with it… except for the fact that my dog puts feces in her mouth. I don’t think I can ever accept that.

Of course that’s not the only trouble spot on walks here in the city, but I can’t blame Szóda for this next one. The Hungarian population has to shoulder the responsibility for this. See, here in Budapest the residents seem to think littering is something of a competition. There are different categories within the sport of littering, just like ice-skating. Some compete for sheer volume, lugging entire boxes of trash out into the street and dumping these boxes out across the sidewalk. Others compete for style points. I found (actually Szóda found this one) a traditional Hungarian open-faced sandwich, rustic white bread spread with lard and topped with thinly sliced red onions, placed neatly on top of a fire hydrant. Perhaps this person thought it less like littering if the sandwich doesn’t touch the ground. I’m comfortable saying that it is not only littering, it is a worse form of littering because the offending sandwich is closer to my face. Still others compete in the covert-littering event, finding little corners and holes to tuck their trash in. This trash remains almost out of sight, but not to a dog. And there is the problem.

Aside from knocking the quality of life down a notch, these people are making my dog-walks a pain in the ass. I am constantly yanking the leash in order to keep Szóda’s face away from trash and poo. The city cleans the tourist areas everyday, but my street gets cleaned only once a week. And that cleaning isn’t cutting it. I try to pick up what I can, but there is an issue of hygiene to be considered in some/most cases.

So, for Szóda the walks have become a time when she’s thinking, “I bet I could eat that. I bet I could eat that. I bet I could eat that. I bet I could eat that. I bet I could eat that.” while I scold her and pull her away from all she would eat. I hope she doesn’t hold it against me.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Geeks


Those who know me would agree, but those who are less familiar should know that I am a geek.

I don’t mean it in that snarky iGeneration sense; I’m not ultra-net savvy, or up-to-date on one specific yet esoteric music scene. It’s nothing like that.

I’m a geek in all the un-glorious traditional ways: I used to play D&D (and would still if I could find players). I’ve seen live shows from the likes of They Might Be Giants, Depeche Mode, and a Blues Brothers cover group. In high school, I was involved in the theater, the choir, the orchestra, and a start-up improve troupe. In college, I liked classes, hated frats, delivered pizza, and ran security at the student union (where I also facilitated the orientation training for new student employees). And through it all I’ve been reading sci-fi and fantasy or watching X-Files, Star Trek’s various incarnations, and now BSG (love me some BSG).

So, with my geek-credential all in order, I feel qualified to say the following:

Geek culture in Hungary is identical to the geek culture I am familiar with in the States. They read Phillip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. They play RPGs in basement bookstores called “Dark Rider Books” (my translation). They sit quietly in rowdy bars, discussing chess strategy---

Actually, let me explain that last one. Kazi (Dora’s cousin) and Kati recently had a baby boy. They named him Alfred. He was born five weeks early, but there were no serious problems. He is completely healthy. So, to celebrate we all went out for a drink. Kazi’s friends make up a raucous crowd, and that night was no exception. To quote David Brent, “El vino did flow.” What struck me as out of place were these five guys there at the bar. They not affiliated with the festivities. They were sitting around a chess board. They were not playing chess, however. They were setting the pieces up in little chess puzzles, working from a set of printed out notes, and arguing the merits and shortcomings of certain moves in each scenario.

While watching these guys, I was flipping through a local sci-fi/fantasy magazine with illustrations, short stories, poetry, and a serialized graphic novel. And that’s when I saw it. In this country, where the concept of cool is far removed from what we Americans consider to be cool, the geek culture is indistinguishable.

Is that as interesting to any of you as it is to me?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

How much would you pay to go into debt?


It looks like Dora and I are about to buy an apartment. We’re very excited about this. We like the building, the location, and most of all, we like the apartment itself. We’ve made an offer, and if the loan goes through we’ll be living in a recently renovated building that was constructed in 1900. Our apartment would be a two bedroom on the second floor (In the US you’d call it the third floor) in very central part of town.

I’m excited to stop paying rent, which brings me to the subject of today’s post:

Hungary’s culture of savings versus America’s culture of debt.

In a country full of financial paradox: where you must have a bank account in order to hold a job, yet the banks charge predatory fees; where the government recently raised taxes, but cut government services; where if you want to run a small business, you have to pay $500 in monthly fees, regardless of how much money you make – in a country like this, people have learned to view the exchange of money as an opportunity to “screw” or “be screwed.”

The result is that Hungarians avoid debt or borrowing of any kind, because it looks so much like an opportunity to be screwed.

For the most part:

Hungarians don’t rent apartments. They live with their parents until they can buy.

Hungarians don’t purchase anything in installments. They will drive their old beater until they have enough to buy a new car.

Hungarians don’t carry credit debt. Allowing yourself to be charged interest doesn’t make sense to a Hungarian.

Things are changing slowly. Home loans are picking up steam, and credit card offers are becoming more visible, but it is so different from the consumer driven culture I knew back in the States. That is: If you want it, you can have it now (strings attached).

Distrust is not always a good quality, but I can’t help but admire the Hungarian attitude of economic distrust. No matter the country, people do questionable things in the name of money; people in banking and government are no exception.

In America, our distrust of government has successfully kept taxes relatively low, but we continue to throw interest payments at banks like they’ve done something tremendous to deserve it.

I never liked credit card debt, but it felt like the natural state of being in the States. Which makes me wonder about the whole consumer confidence rating. They make such a big deal out of that number, but if half of the people “spending” are simply going further into debt, then that’s not consumer confidence; it’s lender confidence.

I think maybe Americans could use a little of the Hungarian distrust. People in the States seem to believe that $25,000 of credit is a favor, but Hungarians would see that as a trap. Maybe the adolescent free-market economy over here has something to teach its more mature role-model over there.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Feeling Low


I’ve spent my birthday and most of Groundhog’s Day sick. Horrible sick, like I can’t get out of bed. Walking the dog takes everything out of me. But I’m not writing for mercy, I have a question.

Earlier this week, Dora had the same thing I have now. She left work early one day, and missed the next workday. That’s about the same amount of time I’ve missed, but there’s something about the way she suffered – well, she didn’t really suffer. That's just it. She was uncomfortable and lacked energy. She had a headache and a cough, same symptoms as me. But she didn’t seem to be in nearly as much pain as me.

I know I’m a huge baby when it comes to being sick, but Dora was telling me that in general, men suffer more then women when sick. I guess it’s an old stereotype I didn’t know about.

My question to readers is: In your experience, compared to women, do men become more of the martyr when they feel ill? And if so, why do you think that is?