Ivan’s private site

March 31, 2012

Political decency (or the lack of it)

Filed under: Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:05
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Here is the story. A high profile politician in a democratic country has a PhD. This also means that he also proudly displays the “Dr” as part of his official name; indeed we are talking about a country where it is the tradition to use that title, and this usually highly respected by society at large.

However, a problem occurs. The rumor is that the PhD has been tainted by plagiarism, i.e., that a substantial part of the PhD thesis is not original work, but had been copied verbatim (though possibly translated if the original was in another language) from other scholarly works. In academic circles this is not considered acceptable; the high standards of academic publishing, let that be a thesis or an average publication, requires the published work to be original. To be blunt: the politician in question is accused of having cheated by transgressing those standards.

Because this is a high profile person, this issue is taken seriously, further investigation follows and it turns out that the rumors are indeed well funded. As a result, the University, that has originally issued the PhD, strips our politician from his title.

How does that affect our politician? Well, you think you have heard this story if you follow the news: indeed you may thing of the (former) defense minister of Germany, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, whose PhD title has been annulled by the University of Bayreuth. Mr. zu Guttenberg (and not Dr. zu Guttenberg any more) has done the only thing a politician of his stature should do: he resigned. A decent choice in a decent, democratic country.

However… not all politicians are equally decent. The very same story happened with the current president, no less, of Hungary, Mr. (and not Dr!) Pál Schmitt. Rumors on plagiarism, public inquiry… and the Semmelweis University of Budapest annulled his PhD because the rumors were indeed well funded.  Does he resign? No. He sees no reason to quit. Indecent choice in a, hopefully, still decent and democratic country, but with an increasingly indecent political leadership.

A shame.

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December 20, 2011

“Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution”–a sad example

Filed under: Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:32
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Kim Lane Scheppele published an analysis in the New York Times on “Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution”. A, in my view, very good, and fairly depressing analysis of the current situation in Hungary. How can a country possibly slide into some sort of authoritarianism dominated by one single ideological view, following a path that is perfectly “legal” (though morally objectionable) at every step of the way. A sad example:-(

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April 5, 2010

Interactive fountain

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 7:23
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A new toy in Budapest, Hungary: an interactive public fountain. Imagine a rectangle (about 10 by 5 meters) with jets of water shooting vertically up into the air at the perimeter. It looks like a room with walls of water. You approach the wall, and a small portion of that wall opens like magic (some parts of the jets stop working), you enter the room and the wall closes behind you (ie, the jets start working again). The same happens if you want to leave the room; you just approach the wall which gracefully opens to let you through. See the picture (click on it to get a somewhat larger image); it shows what happens…

That is whole idea. Simple but great; of course, many people enter the room at various places and various times, some of the jets are not yet in full force, etc, so it gives the fountain and ever changing aspect. When I saw it (yesterday) it was fairly cold outside, but I see in advance that in summer heat this will really be great fun!

As a techie: I tried to find and see the sensors that are, obviously, under your feet both inside and outside the water wall somewhere under your feet. I guess the trick is to have these sensors placed in a way that you do not see them at all to make it all really feel like magic. And indeed, though I tried, I did not see them…

Nice stuff!

June 28, 2009

“Because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail”

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:27
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Saint Stefan
Image via Wikipedia

I have already blogged a few weeks ago on the sad success of right wing extremist parties in Europe. One of the toughests and, in my view, most frightening one among those is the Hungarian “Jobbik” party, with its openly racist, anti-Semitic message. Being Hungarian, I feel embarrassed and saddened by their success… However, a new Facebook group, set up recently to fight against this Hungarian phenomenon, has made me realize a sad irony, too.

One of the historical figures of Hungary is St Stephen I of Hungary, the first king of Hungary. He established the Kingdom of Hungary more than a 1000 years ago, ensuring the future of his nation. As such, he has become, among others, the reference point for all nationalists and, of course, racist movements in Hungary.

St Stephen had a son, Prince Emeric (Imre); and St Stephen wrote a text to prepare his son to play his a role as a king. This old text, known as “Saint Stephen’s admonitions to his son Emeric”, is available on the Web thanks to the National Library of Hungary (sorry, only in Hungarian, I could not find an English translation). It consists of 10 general admonitions, the 6th being on the role of foreigners (the text actually uses the word “guests”) in the country. It would be a bit long to translate, but the title of this blog may be the most important sentence of the paragraph:

Because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail

(If you are interested by the original: “Mert az egy nyelvű és egy szokású ország gyenge és esendő.”)

Wise words coming from the “dark” middle ages! Worth for a number of people, from the Netherlands to Hungary, to think about…

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June 8, 2009

The right-wing extremists on the move…

The right-wing extremists on the move—in Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands. It is a shame— for the large people’s parties and for the voters, which did not participate in the elections.

This is a quote from a blog published on the Web site of the German ZDF television (see the German original). I couldn’t agree more. I live in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ rasist party became one of the strongest parties in the country; I carry a French passport and the Front National will still send representatives to the EU Parliament in the name of France; and I also carry a Hungarian passport and the local right wing “Jobbik” party of Hungary has made a breakthrough yesterday evening. This is not a good day…

(Somme “nuggets” from the declarations of the EU representative of Jobbik: “I would be glad if the so-called proud Hungarian Jews would go back to playing with their tiny little circumcised tail rather than vilifying me”,…“We had a dream that we would not become a second Palestina. This dream has just come true…”. Wonderful…)

One can of course be optimistic: these movements come and go, they are in a minority. And I hope optimism is till o.k. But when I see these people marching on the streets of Budapest where I grew up, or when, as a foreigner in the Netherlands, I am indirectly accused by an official party of stealing the job of locals, then, well, it is not easy to keep up my optimism…

June 3, 2008

In memoriam Ferenc Fejtő

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 11:04

Ferenc Fejtő (or, if you prefer, François Fejtő) passed away yesterday. I know his name was not widely known in the “West”, and that is unfortunate, but nevertheless Wikipedia has an entry which is fairly accurate (the French Wikipedia article also gives his partial bibliography).

The Hungarian regime of the 80’s and before (as indeed most dictatorial regimes) was mostly afraid of knowledge. Knowing the truth, knowing the real history and not only what was officially taught was considered as subversive. Ie, many books were banned, forbidden; the books of Fejtő were high on their list, so to say. I still cherish some of his books (“Histoire des démocraties populaires”, “Chine/URSS”; the former was also published in English by Pall Mall Press in 1971, under the title “A history of the People’s Democracies”) that I had to smuggle into the country in the 70’s or the 80’s coming back from my trips abroad and which helped me a lot in understanding the history of the environment I was living in. It was good to have such intellectuals like him.

March 2, 2008

Book worth reading: on Paul Erdős

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links,Work Related — Ivan Herman @ 10:54

If you are interested by the personalities behind mathematics, or simply in the peculiar mind of a genius, it is worth reading Bruce Schechter’s book on Paul Erdős (well, with my Hungarian background I should really write Erdős Pál). Erdős Pál was undeniably one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century and certainly one of the greatest mathematicians ever. But also a very peculiar personality. He lived a completely “monastic” life; he never had a fixed job, a place he could really call “home”, all his worldly possessions would fit into a suitcase, and he spent most of his life traveling around the globe from one conference to the other, from one city to the other, wherever he had friends he could do mathematics with. He was author or co-author of around 1,500(!) articles; the number of collaborators was so big that the community came up with the humorous notion of “Erdős number”. He was also incredibly generous in helping young, talented mathematicians to start their career.

I did not have the pleasure to meet Erdős personally, although I had the privilege of having some of his closest collaborators as my teachers at the University of Budapest in the early 70’s (Turán, Sós, Simonovits, Hajnal,…). But he regularly came back to Hungary. We never knew when (nobody did, in fact); the news suddenly spread among us that Erdős was in Budapest and that he would make a presentation, well, tomorrow afternoon. And we went, forgetting our regular, scheduled courses and listed to his talk. His lectures were always great, witty, and full of interesting and unsolved problems. He would usually come with a problem saying “this seems to be an open issue, I have the feeling that it could be solved this and this way; I give a prices of 100$ to whoever solves this”. Or $10 or $1,000, depending on the problem (although the monetary side was not the most important in trying to solve those problems; the perspective of gaining an Erdős number 1, ie, becoming one of Erdős’ co-authors, was much more of an incentive). Even if our field of interest did not coincide with Erdős’, these lectures were always among the highlights of the year. And it did not occur often; I think in those 5 years that I spent at the University, I saw him twice, or maybe three times… certainly not more.

It may be an unusual analogy, but his personality, and the style of his appearances remind me of another genius in a totally different area, namely Sviatoslav Richter. Much like Erdős, he was one of the greatest personalities of the century in a particular field (as a classical pianist) who also led a kind of a recluse, monastic life without real possession and ignoring all traditional signs of success. And much like Erdős nobody knew when he would appear in Budapest for a concert nor what he would play; the news spread among those interested and we all ran to listen to his performances (played in a darkened concert hall, with barely a small lamp on the piano illuminating the music sheet only). And his performance of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier remain among the most cherished memories I have from my youth. Much like Erdős’ occasional visits.

A book worth reading.

[1] Bruce Schechter: “My Brain is Open, the Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdős”. The book is not new, but just appeared on some airports, that is where I found it…

December 20, 2007

Schengen (non–)borders

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 10:16
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As a child, I used to travel every year from Budapest, Hungary, to France by train. One of the crucial moments of the trip was the arrival to the station of the border town between Hungary and Austria, namely Hegyeshalom (don’t worry about the pronunciation…).

These were the 60’s, ie, the glorious days of the cold war. As the train rolled into the station, soldiers surrounded the train: one guard for each door of each carriage on both sides, all armed with Kalashnikovs; others walking around the station grounds with guard dogs. Officers boarded the train, thoroughly checked the passport of each and every one. Their behaviour was based on the assumption that we were all suspects and guilty, and treated as such, until proven otherwise. Then it was the turn of the customs officers, opening luggages, looking for either forbidden books, journals, newspapers, or simply (when coming back to Hungary) some Western goods that were considered as luxury in Hungary and were therefore to be taxed. For the child of around 10 that I was at the time these were fairly chilling moments… I must admit those images have become encrusted in my mind forever.

Of course, as years went by, things eased a bit: guard dogs disappeared (I guess in the 70’s), there were fewer soldiers (only one on each side of a carriage, not two; what a major improvement that was!), they stopped having Kalashnikovs in favour of just hand guns, the custom controls became sloppier… But the system itself was around in some way or other up until the 80’s.

Why do I write this now? Because Hungary joined the Schengen Agreement a few years ago and, tomorrow, all border control will disappear between Hungary and most of its European Union neighbours (the only exception is Romania, and that exception will also disappear in a few years’ time). One can drive by train or by car from Budapest to Amsterdam or, for that matter, to Nancy (the target city of my childhood trips) without being asked for identity papers, passports, anything; without even seeing a border control post. Actually, I expect that some trains would not even stop at Hegyeshalom any more. Western Europeans take this for granted already (do you think about this when taking a train to Brussels from Amsterdam or Paris?) but it was a long road for a country like Hungary. The world has definitely changed.

There is hope.

October 25, 2007

Former classmates and Hungary

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 20:24

Some days ago I had the pleasure to spend an evening with a friend whom I had not seen for more 27 years; we used to be classmates in one of the top high schools back in the seventies in Budapest. After a while the unavoidable happened: we began to enumerate our common classmates, to share information about who did what, what happened with them, how their life evolved, etc. One of the striking facts was that (out of cca. 35 kids back then) about half (if not more) left Hungary at some point or other. Some people live in France, others in Germany, US, the UK (like my friend), the Netherlands (like myself and my wife),… And practically none of those have moved back, or plan to move back to Hungary, in spite of the changes that occurred there. Though not necessarily surprising, this fact stroke me again as a somewhat unfortunate fact about a whole generation in Hungary. Slightly sad and discomforting…

October 13, 2007

Move the Hungarian away…

Filed under: Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 18:00

Nico made a comment on my previous, Hungarian blog, and he was absolutely right. Mixing two languages, with one of the two being as peculiar as Hungarian:-) is really not a good idea. So I created myself a separate, Hungarian-only blog. From now on, the two blogs are strictly separated…

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