Author Archives: nathaniellarson

What the Course Titles Mean

Good news! I think that my midterms were successful, so I’ll probably be keeping all of the courses in my schedule. Here’s the rundown:

  • Combinatorics 1 (Dezső MIKLÓS)
  • Mathematical Problem Solving (Sándor DOBOS)
  • Introduction to Topology (Ágnes SZILÁRD)
  • Introduction to Mathematical Cryptography (Péter MAGA)
  • Intermediate Hungarian

I know most of you are thinking, They offer topology? I wish I could take that! or Combinatorics?! what a lucky duck he is! or I want one of these awesome Hungarian last names!

These are all things that I’m excited about too. And while you probably know all that you need to know about asymmetric cryptographic systems already, I thought that you might appreciate a short review of what my classes entail. Below are some descriptions, as well as some sample problems from the first couple weeks of each course:

A typical BSM classroom

Combinatorics 1

Miklos in traditional math professor attire

The goal of this class is to explore the various ways to count possibilities. We talk a lot about putting hats on people, buying candy and ice cream, and placing people on committees. One of the reasons I like this class is because there are several ways to approach every problem. Depending on how you choose to group objects, you can come up with very different formulas, which I find exciting.

Our professor happens to be the director of BSM, Dezső Miklós, who strides into class five minutes late every day and immediately begins writing on the chalkboard without consulting notes. This is very common for our Hungarian professors, I’ve come to realize. I guess the math is just so ingrained in their psyche, they can pull a lesson plan out of their heads.

Combo Problems

1) How many ways are there to place 1×2 dominoes to exactly cover a 2×10 rectangle?

2) The 5 players of the Chicago Bull are all of distinct heights. In how many different ways can they enter the court if no player is placed between two others both higher then him? Generalize for n players!

Mathematical Problem Solving

Dobos lecturing

This is one of a few courses that make BSM unique from any other undergraduate math program. In this class we explore strategies we can use to solve problems across mathematics. Each week we tackle a different field. One week we looked at divisibility, another week we solved geometry problems, now we are considering problems that involve perfect squares (like 1 = 12, 4 = 22, 9 = 32, or 16 = 42).

A clay flute like Dobos’

My professor, Sándor Dobos, is also one of the coaches of the Hungarian Math Olympiad team, a group of high school students that competes every year in the International Math Olympiad competition against over a hundred other countries. You can tell that he is loves every field of math. He gets so animated over each proof and reveals the solution to every problem as if it were the end of a murder mystery. He also plays his ocarina (clay flute) to announce the beginning of every problem.



MPS Problems

3) Prove that every positive integer has a multiple in the form 11…1100…0 (some 1’s followed by some 0’s)

4) Let A and B be points and m be a line. How do you find the point P on m such that AP + PB is a minimum.

Introduction to Topology


Topology, says Professor Szilárd (see-LARD), is “seriously exciting.” On our first day of class, she described topology as “rubbersheet geometry.” Unlike in the field of geometry, in topology any two shapes are equal if they can be deformed into another by twisting, compressing, or stretching, as if they were made of rubber. So, all triangles are topologically equivalent, as are squares and circles, spheres and cubes, and all sorts of lines. However, the torus, with its hole, is not equivalent to a sphere.

Caroline and Simon demonstrating excellent study behavior

We calculate that two objects are topologically the same by finding special functions called homeomorphisms that map one objects onto the other. This semester, we’ve used homeomorphisms to show that the sphere minus a point is essentially a plane, and that gluing two one-sided Mobius strips together produces a cool object called a Klein bottle, among other equivalences. Topology is one of the foundational fields in mathematics, so I’m glad to finally be receiving an introduction.

It’s hard to find an introductory problem that doesn’t involve a number of definitions, so maybe this will provide a taste of the terminology:

5) In class we showed some cases of the fact that in R all open intervals (a, b) (where a, b can be ±∞ as well) are homeomorphic. Now consider [0, 1) and (0, 1) of R. We certainly know they are bijective as both are uncountable. Find an actual bijection between the intervals [0, 1) and (0, 1) of R.

Introduction to Mathematical Cryptography

Not exactly how it works, but looks cool.

This is probably the sexiest course title in my schedule. Cryptography sounds mysterious and complicated, but it is simply the study of how to send private messages. How can we ensure that a message can get from Alice to Bob without Eve, the eavesdropper, figuring out what the message is? In ancient times, the rudimentary Caesar cipher or simple substitution cipher were sufficient to encode and decode messages secretly. But with the advent of computers, cryptographers have turned to rigorous mathematical algorithms to create cryptographic systems that can securely transmit large amounts of data.

The class has drawn upon other fields I have studied, such as discrete math and abstract algebra, which I thought would never be all that practical. Just goes to show there is almost always an application of math!

Cryptography Problem

6) Crack the following Caesar cipher: iai! oazsdmfgmfuaze! zmftmzuqx iagxp nq ea bdagp ftmf kag eaxhqp ftue oubtqd.

Intermediate Hungarian

Slowly, but surely, I am learning Hungarian vocabulary. For whatever reason, my Spanish keeps coming to me instead of Hungarian. Oh well, maybe I can try Spanish at the local store.

Bye from BSM!

I promise to post again soon!


Time to Vote (That Means You)

We need to talk.

After this last post today on garbage in Budapest, I have a few different ideas of what I’ll be writing about. In addition to keeping you abreast of my adventures here in Budapest, I wanted to devote some time to specific topics in math, politics, food, and travel. While I hope to write about all of these things, the semester is already taking its toll on my free time. Since my time is limited, I want to give you the opportunity to determine the topics that you read about! I’d love to hear from you (, or comment below) if there is anything in particular that you want to read about!

Here’s what I’ve got:

  • Hungarian language: This will be coming soon, in one or two parts. If I can’t escape the language requirement for OCS (not that I’d want to), then you will not escape from a Hungarian lesson of your own.
  • The Hungarian political situation: If you haven’t heard, Hungary’s current government is one of the most nationalist in Europe. And while most of Central Europe (because Hungary is in central Europe, not Eastern Europe, they are clear about this!) is more conservative than Western Europe, Hungary’s political trajectory has been particularly troubling. As detailed in this recent New York Times piece, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has systematically scaled back civil liberties and dismantled key checks and balances in Hungary’s constitution. I hope to cover my perspective on the autocratic shifts taking place in this country, and the reverberations they are sending across Europe.
  • My Weekend Trips: During my time here so far, I’ve traveled to four European capitals: Bratislava, Prague, Berlin, and Vienna. It’s been a whirlwind! I also have plans/dreams to visit Madrid, Copenhagen, Italy and Poland in the coming weeks and months. There’s so much to talk about, but I’d like to cover some highlights from these excursions. Let me know if this would be one of your top priorities!
  • Anatomy of a Problem: We’ll take on one of the problems from my Mathematical Problem-Solving Class and solve it together, using methods that I have learned. You’ll hopefully come to realize how interesting and exciting my coursework is—which it certainly is. The only risk for me is that you’ll also realize how simple it is too, compared to the intricate and multi-faceted problems that you are solving every day at school and work!
  • The Food Tour of Europe: From the best almond croissant I have ever tasted to the gyros that comprise (without exaggeration) 20-25% of my diet in Budapest, I have had a great experience with food in Europe. If food is what you would like to read about, I would definitely be up for writing about some of the best and most interesting culinary experiences I have had while traveling here.
  • Random Thoughts: As I travel around and study math, I sporadically have random thoughts about random things. European crosswalks, biking culture, how best to absorb the art at all of these famous art museums, the history of metro systems (Budpest’s was the first on the European continent), the piano virtuoso who moved in next door and—believe me—much much more. If you just want some intriguing but peripheral observations about Hungary and Europe, vote for this.
  • Math: I can always just talk about math to you too.

Well, there are some possible options. If you like the description of any of them, let me know! Although, now that I’ve written something about all of these, I’ll probably just go on to something else instead.

All the best,


Garbage Day!

Whew! It’s been a while, but I finally had a long weekend to stretch and get myself writing again!

~ ~ ~

I still don’t know how it began. On the morning of March 9, piles of stuff began to appear on the streets of District VIII in Budapest. As I went to class, I passed people hauling books and cardboard boxes out of my building and stacking them between parked cars on the curb. By midday when I came home for lunch, the small stacks had merged into large piles of trash, knickknacks, lamps and chairs. Then came the appliances, as well as tables and piles of wood and other building materials, so that by 7 o’clock the streets were, as one BSM student later put it, perfectly perpared for a performance of Les Misérables.

Trash on the streets (László Balkányi We Love Budapest)

There was a reason that my neighborhood was playing the part of nineteenth-century Parisian revolutionaries constructing barricades to stave off the French army, and that was lomtalanítás—or “get-rid-of-your-junk” day. Instead of providing any regular trash service for bulky items or large quantities of trash, the city guarantees on this day that any of the stuff left out on the curbs will be removed by the next morning. In essence, it is free garbage disposal, so all of my neighbors were ready with everything, big and small, that they deemed to be “trash.”

That night, I left my apartment and walked to a friend’s house. The scene on the streets was surreal. The local online publication We Love Budapest (an excellent resource, and where some of these photos came from) described the experience well. Watching lomtalanítás unfold, as they described, was “akin to setting out into a post-apocalyptic city where no apocalypse has occurred.”

It didn’t feel this way primarily because of the trash piles everywhere, but rather because of the people crawling over the piles and looting through the junk. It was not uncommon to turn a corner and have someone stop and turn towards you, wondering if you were coming towards their pile.

Most people walking down the street found something interesting to consider (some treasures below), but some others appeared to turn the day into a whole economic operation. Teams of people in trucks, and occasionally whole families, sorted through the household items for clothing, appliances and functional electronics that still had value. It was clear that these “professional” crews knew what they were looking for. I also tried to scavenge, with subpar results. I was mostly unsuccessful, but eventually found a wonderful wok on top of a washing machine (I later realized that it was actually not-so-wonderful, so I left it on top of a different pile).

Once I found out about lomtalanítás, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before. There were certainly things that I could have contributed! There were no posters or announcements that I had seen. After doing some research online, I found out that the city actually tries to keep the exact date of lomtalanítás a secret until the day itself because of the competitive scavenging crews that commute from cities around Budapest to participate. And no, I still don’t know how everyone else knew…maybe Hungarians just know, you know?

The practice of lomtalanítás began during the communist era over thirty years ago, and residents look forward to this day every year. According to the same We Love Budapest article, politicians occasionally try to end the practice, but they always end up abandoning the idea because they run up against fierce opposition. Lomtalanítás is engrained in Budapest’s culture, and—I can attest—is one of the many things that makes the city unique.

Where Do I Live?

On Tuesday I said tomorrow I’ll post some pictures and a tour of where I live. Well, tomorrow has finally arrived!

Where I Live…in the City

I live in Pest, on the Eastern side of the Danube. This is the most densely populated part of the city. As a rule of thumb: Buda is known to be more green and wealthy, while Pest is urban and compact. My apartment building is located in District VIII, here:

From Google Maps, we can see my language school and College International, which houses BSM (about 15 minutes away walking). I’ll also point out the Parliament, Buda Castle, and City Park, where you can find the Szechenyi thermal baths.

Zooming in, my apartment is between Astoria and Blaha Lujza tér metro stops. I usually mention these two when I explain where I live. In general, people here  describe the locations of landmarks in relation to metro stations, which makes sense, because nearly everyone here relies on Budapest’s notoriously good public transit. I shop for groceries at Spar (pronounced shpar, remember from the Liszt lesson!) and the Rákóczi Market Hall, and my favorite coffee shop is the Magvető café.

Mmm, Spar

The Maveto café is wonderful–looks like it’s straight out of Portland, right?

…in My Apartment Building

At this moment, however, I’m at home, in this building:

Up on the third floor, I go along this open-air hallway to my door.


…and in My Apartment

You can look at some pictures of my apartment at the bottom of this page, but first…I want to point out a few features of the flat that I think you’ll find interesting:

#1  Extremely high ceilings. I’ve mentioned this before in our apartment, but I didn’t realize at the time how prevalent 10-12 foot ceilings are throughout Budapest. While a definitive explanation has been elusive, architect Witold Rybczynski suggests that it may be a combination of the fact that taller windows allow light to penetrate deeper into a building and pure aesthetics. It also may not cost significantly more for many buildings to be constructed taller, he says in a Slate article. Another commentator suggests that smoke—from both heating and tobacco—made taller ceilings more comfortable around the turn of the century. Due to Budapest’s restrictive construction laws, few buildings in the city center have been rebuilt, so they keep their high ceilings.


#2 Drying racks. Since there are no dryers in Hungary, apparently (it saves energy, certainly, but I still think that it would be a good investment) we rely on racks to air-dry our clothing. Some of our racks can be set up on the floor, but my favorite one takes advantage of the high ceilings and a pulley system:


I love little design features like this. And this rack is awesome to have. Not as awesome as a clothes dryer, but cool nonetheless.


#3 German shelf toilets. For those of you who haven’t been to Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, or one of several other nations with this amenity, I have the honor to introduce you to the shelf toilet:


Both of the toilets in our apartment are shelf toilets. I had heard about them from Seth, a friend studying abroad in Berlin for the year. Despite the warning, I don’t think I was prepared. If you’re wondering why this toilet is shaped in this way, let me just tell you its alternative name: the “inspection toilet.” The Germans, I must say, are in tune with their bodies.

A word to the wise: these toilets are much better suited for those with healthy digestive systems.

If you are curious for more information, consider this pro-German toilet perspective, or this piece entitled “Terrifying German Toilets.”

~ ~ ~

And as promised, here are the photos of our apartment (with models) and my neighborhood:


The Semester Begins!

Classes started yesterday! After two exhausting days, I must say: BSM is truly a mathematical smörgåsbord. I’ve ended up running from class to class without any end in sight:

  • Mathematical Problem-Solving
  • Introduction to Combinatorics
  • Discovery Learning: the Pósa Method (about how to effectively teach/learn math)
  • Commutative Algebra
  • Quantum Probability and Logic
  • The Philosophy of Math
  • …and Hungarian language
  • (more to come!)

The somewhat austere building that houses BSM, McDaniel College, and the overhead bus cables

It’s a lot, but I’m excited because I wouldn’t be able to do anything quite like this back at Whitman. The BSM program is different because it has implemented a unique registration policy to allow students to visit classes and explore as much as possible. Students are not required to formally register for their courses until the third week, so these first few weeks become a “shopping” period, when professors expect BSMers to take on much more than they can handle and revel in the sheer quantity of mathematics courses available.

Once workloads reach crushing levels, students commit to the classes they would like to keep and drop the rest. But even then, nothing is set in stone. BSM allows students to leave courses without record until a week before finals, or audit a class after the course is over.

I appreciate this policy, because I feel that the instructors are looking out for our best interests. The emphasis is on exploration and curiosity rather than requirements, and I think that is how it should be. They simply want students to be excited about math.

It reminds me of the point in our academic orientation (a simple, two-hour affair—you can rely on mathematicians to be efficient) when the director of BSM, Professor Dezső Miklós, reviewed information about textbooks. Most courses would use handouts and lecture notes rather than textbooks, he told us. For those classes that did have an accompanying textbook, BSM had a small bookstore. But the texts are expensive, he noted, and several required books were not there. He told us not to worry. “Perhaps,” he wondered with a smile, “this could mean that these books can be found elsewhere, by…other means.”

In more ways than one, they have our backs.

Well, it’s been a good day, and I wish you a good night! Tomorrow: some pictures and a guided tour of where I live!


The Greatest Hungarians Part II

[Warning: Long Post, but there is a prize for those who finish!]

Some Hungarians (Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome back to The Greatest Hungarians! As I mentioned in my last blog post on this topic, Hungarians are an accomplished people. Before I get to the stories for this post, I thought I might just list some of the greats who I did not write about, but who deserve recognition:

  • Ernő Rubik, inventor of the Rubik’s cube
  • Béla Bartók, who collected Hungarian folk music and used it as inspiration for his innovative compositions
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor, a Hollywood actresses of the 1950’s known for her personality, extravagance, and marriages (9 in total)
  • Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer of the mid-20th century
  • Ferenc Puskás, one of the best soccer players of all time, who led the Hungarian national team to international dominance and even defeated the British national team 7-1 in 1954
  • Albert Szent-Györgyi. I had never heard his name before, but he discovered vitamin C by extracting it from peppers

Now, I’ll introduce two of the most influential people to come out of Hungary: Paul Erdős and Franz Liszt. Be sure to read—or skip—to the end, because there are some excellent piano pieces composed by Liszt I think that you’ll want to hear!

~ ~ ~

The Prolific Mathematician

Paul Erdős (pronounced air-dish) is one of the most famous mathematicians of all time. Over the course of his career, he made major contributions to number theory, combinatorics, graph theory, and many other areas of mathematics. He also was a master collaborator: he would work with mathematicians at one university to discover theorems and write papers until he had exhausted his hosts, at which point he would fly to a new location and begin again. And while popular belief has it that a mathematicians’ ability to produce groundbreaking work slows or stops in middle age (the Fields Medal, known as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics” is the most blatant manifestation of this belief: it is only awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40), Erdős was developing novel mathematics until his death in 1996, two months before I was born. In all, he published over 1,500 papers, a quantity which has never—and possibly will never—be surpassed.

In addition to his mathematical genius and unparalleled collaboration, Erdős was well known for his eccentricities. He rarely talked about anything besides math, had no interest in romance or a long-term partnership, worked fourteen-hour days with the help of incredible amounts of coffee and amphetamines, and could barely take care of himself, relying on his mathematical colleagues and their families for room and board wherever he went. All he owned—clothes, toiletries, passport, and papers—fit into one suitcase.

This man is so fascinating, it’s too hard to resist elaboration. Here are a couple of illustrative stories from a book written by Paul Hoffman called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

Erdős was obsessive about his commitment to mathematical discovery. Once, a fellow mathematician confronted him about his frequent use of Benzedrine, an amphetamine, and told him that he should receive addiction treatment. Erdős disagreed, he was not addicted. The friend laughed and said he must be joking. So to prove his point, Erdős stopped taking any stimulants for a month. When he was done, he called up the mathematician friend, told him that he had completed the challenge, and asked if his friend felt guilty for setting mathematics back a month. Then, reportedly, Erdős took some Benzedrine and began cranking out mathematics like before.

Erdős was also notorious for his inability to do laundry, cook, or generally take care of himself. On one occasion, he was staying at a house of a mathematician colleague whose wife noticed something strange happening. One morning, his colleague’s wife came into the kitchen and saw the floor covered in cereal. It must’ve been difficult to make such a mess while fixing a bowl of cereal, she thought, but didn’t say anything because she expected this sort of thing with Erdős. So she cleaned it up and let the matter be. However, the next morning, she encountered the same scene in the kitchen. Cereal everywhere. She walked into the study where Erdős was working and asked him what had happened. He told her. Apparently he had wanted to help out, so he decided to feed the dogs. Not knowing what they ate, he took fistfuls of cereal and dropped them on the floor. His explanation complete, Erdős went back to work. Then he turned back. The dogs didn’t seem to want any, he added.


Perhaps my favorite characteristic of Erdős was that children loved him. When he visited colleagues, he often asked about and greeted their children first. He treated them as he did adults, and posed mathematical questions that challenged and excited them. Oftentimes, he said, they could come up with more creative approaches than their parents.

Erdős, lovably eccentric and incredibly intelligent, is one of the great heroes of Hungarians.

~ ~ ~

The Composer and Virtuoso

[Note on language: “s” in Hungarian sounds like “sh” in English, and “sz” sounds like “s”. Once you know this, you sound twice as Hungarian when you speak. This is why “Budapest” is “Buda-pesht” and “Liszt” is “List”. Look, you’ve got it—you sound Hungarian already!]

A moody older Liszt

Ferenc (Franz) Liszt may be the greatest pianist who ever lived.  Born in 1811 in Budapest, he began piano lessons in early childhood and was performing professionally by the age of seven. He was ambitious and talented, and attracted attention from several of the most famous composers of the era: Salieri was his piano instructor for a time and he met Beethoven and Schubert in 1822. At twenty-one, he found his professional calling when he went to a recital of Paganini, the great violin virtuoso. He decided on the spot that he would become as great a performer on the piano as Paganini was on the violin.

A moody younger Liszt.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Liszt crisscrossed Europe giving performances. He also composed some of his most famous pieces during this time (see the three pieces selected below, you’ll probably recognize them). In recital, he was known as a showman, taking liberties with music that many musicians would consider sacrilegious. He was also such a frequent performer that he was often the only pianist available with new music during his tours. With no one to join him on the program, he became the first concert pianist to give solo recitals. My piano professor at Whitman, Dr. Wood, has also mentioned that we owe the tradition of memorizing music to Liszt. According to Wood, he would show up in a town and ask what piece they wanted to hear, and then play it from memory. Concert pianists across Europe followed his lead and the practice took hold. Thank you Liszt, but for my brain’s sake, I wish that you hadn’t.

After traveling Europe for years, Liszt settled down in Germany. The Austro-Hungarian government was disappointed, and decided to lure him back to his home country. In 1871, the idea for a Royal Academy—with Liszt as its president—was conceived. He would perform, direct the national orchestra, and teach classes at the Academy for most of the year. Liszt took the position, but didn’t complete many of his duties (he didn’t direct the orchestra, and he left Budapest before finals were completed every semester). The prospect of recitals was simply too enticing. However, he did inspire a generation of Hungarian composers and helped to solidify a tradition of piano mastery that continues in Hungary to this day. He continued to perform for most of the rest of his life.

The Liszt Playlist (or should I say, Playliszt?)  Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (around 6:06 is when I began to recognize the melody—look at those hands!)  Liebestraum – Love Dream (possibly Liszt’s most famous piece) La Campenella (future hair goals)

If you want more, just visit Spotify’s Liszt page.

I’ve found that his music is excellent for studying—I listened to it while writing my blog posts.

~ ~ ~

Shout out to those of you who made it this far! Until later, loyal readers. Thank you so much for learning about Hungary with me! During these next couple weeks, feel free to email me ( with topics that you’d like to hear about.

Next week, a tour of my apartment and a Hungarian lesson!


Living in History

A quick thought from my life before I add my post about more famous Hungarians (and give some song recommendations!).

As part of my language school course, we have visited some of the key historical locations in Budapest. Last week, we took a trip to Buda Castle, a citadel with a long and varied history located on the Western bank of the Danube.

Originally built by King Béla IV in 1265, it was the primary fortress of the Hungarian kings for several hundred years. Previously, the kings had traveled with their court from region to region, so the decision to construct Buda Castle ensured that Buda—and later Budapest—would become the center of political power in the country. In the mid-eighteenth century, the castle was rebuilt as a baroque palace, the structure that stands today.

The Buda Castle at night (Original Budapest Tours)

The palace is beautiful, but parts of it have seen intense history. In 1945, Soviets invaded the Pest (Eastern) side of the city. Nazi German and Hungarian troops retreated to Buda and destroyed all the bridges across the river. Over the course of months, the each army shelled the opposite city in hopes of gaining an edge. According to our tour guide, Emese, much of the palace, including a chunk of the ancient castle, was reduced to rubble.

All of the bridges crossing the Danube were destroyed during the Soviet siege of Buda

During the siege, 27 percent of Budapest’s buildings were destroyed, over 32,000 in total

Since then, the palace has been restored, but most of the original castle is in ruins that cannot feasibly be put back together. You could see the attempts of some curators in parts of the museum, where stones had been strategically inserted into a room to give the feeling of what the room may have looked like before World War II. But sometimes there wasn’t much.

This really got to me. I have not been to Europe before, and also haven’t seen destruction caused by any major war. I’ve only studied World War II in school, so it never really struck me how evident and intimate the aftermath of the conflict could be in a place like Budapest, where Russians and Germans fought block-by-block through the streets.

Maybe it’s partly because I’m American or Midwestern that I feel distant from violent history. Most of the war history that I was taught happened “over there” in Africa, Asia, or more often than not, Europe. If we studied armed conflict in American history, it was “over there” on the East Coast, except for the war on Native Americans that brought Minnesota into the United States. No place where I’ve lived has been a battleground in a very long time.

Now, I’m living in a city where its inhabitants live in apartment buildings damaged by bombs in World War II, or by the various protests when Hungary was under Soviet rule mere decades ago. Landmarks like the palace have pictures of buildings and structures that simply don’t exist anymore because of these conflicts. And on the street, one can see the evidence of war every day, not blatant, but visible.

A memorial near the Danube to victims of the Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II

One of the more clear remnants of war in the walls of Budapest (both: Wikimedia Commons)


I wonder whether proximity to these remnants of war affects Budapestians on a psychological level. When they see the physical destruction that a conflict like World War II has caused—not to mention unseen psychological and social impacts—do they tend to think twice about policies that could provoke a similar conflict? And have I, as an American and Midwestern, been conditioned to think that even if war happens, it won’t have an impact on my home? It kind of feels that way.

I don’t know if any of this has any psychological or sociological basis. (If anyone reading this has an idea, I’d love to hear about any studies or research you know of!) Regardless, living in Budapest and seeing the physical influence of History-with-a-capital-H every day is changing the way I think. I still haven’t seen that much, and I have a long way to go before I feel like I understand the Hungarian mindset and way of life. One thing is becoming more clear to me as I’m here: living in a new country is a culture shock, most often in ways I would not expect.

The Greatest Hungarians Part 1

This week, I wanted to write about some of the most famous people who have come from Hungary, in part to provide you with some background on the country and partly because these people have lived such interesting lives! Hungary has a population of about ten million, but it seems to me that its citizens are disproportionately likely to make a big splash. Zoltan Buczolich, the professor at Eotvos Lorand University who organized the hike I went on last Friday, told me that Hungary prides itself on its international competitiveness in several areas, including fencing, swimming, piano performance, chess, and of course, mathematics. We’ll cover some of these and more in…The Greatest Hungarians.

The Chess Champion

Judit Polgár is widely considered the best woman chess player of all time. She was the highest ranked female player from the time she was twelve, in 1989, until her retirement from competitive chess in 2015, except for a brief period in her final year of playing when she was outranked by the Chinese player Hou Yifan. She became the youngest grandmaster ever at the age of 15 years, 4 months, beating Bobby Fischer by several months. She is the only woman to have won against a reigning World Champion, and when she retired was the eighth best player in the world. Currently, she coaches the national Hungarian men’s chess team.

Susan, Judit, and Sofia (l to r)

One of the most fascinating parts of Polgár’s backstory is that she and her sisters were the subjects of an educational experiment by their father, Lászlo Polgár, an educational psychologist and chess educator. Based on his philosophy that “geniuses are made, not born,” Lászlo trained all three of his daughters to be chess champions. He and his wife, Klára, homeschooled their children, which put them in conflict with socialist public school officials, and entered them into traditionally male chess tournaments, which put them in conflict with the entire chess establishment. But in spite of this disapproval, there was something that neither Soviet administrators nor chess officials could deny: the Polgár sisters beat everyone at chess. Susan, the oldest, and Sofia, the middle sister, became international masters at an early age and won prestigious tournaments. They paved the way for Judit to become the youngest grandmaster ever and one of the strongest chess players in the world.


Judit playing several matches at once.

A note for my fellow men reading this blog. Judit Polgár says of her male peers, “my colleagues have finally accepted me, but years ago they did treat me differently. Susan once said she never won against a healthy man. What she meant was that men always had some excuse after losing a game to a woman: ‘It must have been a headache.’” What I want to say to you guys is that when she—any woman—beats me, it’s probably because she’s better than me. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to ask if she has advice or if she could teach me anything. So let’s pledge to eat our quinoa and get proper sleep so that we can avoid headaches, become healthy, and learn more from her lessons.


After winning an international tournament in the 1990s.

The Progressive Investor

George Soros is one of the most successful investors of the past century. His story begins in Budapest, where he was born in 1930 to a non-practicing Jewish family. When he was young, the Nazi party in Germany occupied Hungary and initiated the systematic persecution of Hungarian Jews. As Soros describes, he and his family survived by purchasing documents certifying that they were Christian and occasionally hiding with sympathetic friends and businesspeople. After the end of World War II, Soros traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics, where he developed an understanding of capitalist markets and eventually constructed his theory of reflexivity, which has driven his investing strategy ever since.

Economics students reading this may have already heard of reflexivity. It is the notion that different economic principles will apply to markets that are close to equilibrium and those that are far out of balance. Relatively intuitive, right? At equilibrium, prices accurately reflect a commodity’s value. Bias pushes markets out of equilibrium, which poses a risk to investors—or opens an opportunity, depending on one’s perspective. What Soros observed, among other things, was that when markets are changing quickly they are disproportionately often out of equilibrium.

George Soros speaks during a forum at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington.

Soros used reflexivity theory to make investment decisions—including a highly publicized $10 billion short sale of the British pound in 1992—eventually building one of the largest personal fortunes in existence. While his investing strategy is impressive, I am most intrigued by how he has spent the money he makes. In the past couple decades, Soros has become one of the biggest donors to progressive causes and liberal candidates in history. He has spearheaded education and healthcare initiatives across the world, supported both Obama and Clinton in their presidential bids, and even played a role in the Rose Revolution for Georgian independence. Some people wonder if he may have too much influence campaigns and progressive international organizations.

In Hungary, Soros has funded the Central European University (CEU) and is an outspoken supporter of immigration, which has put him at odds with Hungarian political leadership. A bureaucratic squabble initiated by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing nationalist, over CEU’s license to operate in Hungary has become one of the most closely watched political bouts in Hungary. The fight is unlikely to be resolved soon, as it has become a proxy for  some of the critical issues that Hungarians face, including growing nationalism, the influence of the United States and the EU in domestic affairs, the rise of consumer culture, uneven modernization and threats to traditional institutions.

The American Magician

Harry Houdini was one of the most talented escape artists in the world. He was born to a Jewish family with the name Erik Weisz in Budapest in the year 1874. Just four years later, he and his family moved to New York, where he became a U.S. citizen.

While he didn’t have much of a connection to Hungary for most of his adult life, he is certainly one of the most famous people to be born in Hungary. One of the reasons that I mention him is because in 1899 he was performing in my hometown of the Twin Cities when he made his big break. That was when Martin Beck saw Houdini, was so impressed that he offered to become Houdini’s manager, and set him up on the national Orpheum vaudeville circuit.


Houdini was born in Budapest and found success in my hometown. Fingers crossed—it could be time for my big break when I’m in his…

Below are a couple of his famous acts. He performed many of these until he collapsed on stage in 1926 with a fever of 104. He was rushed to the hospital where he was told he had appendicitis. He refused treatment, performed another show, and died later that night.


The so-called Chinese Water Chamber escape.

An upside-down suspended escape Houdini performed many times, sometimes from the building housing the local newspaper.


Houdini in a cute family photo with his wife and mother.

The second installment will come at the end of the week.

See ya later!


A Walk In the Woods

Szia! Jó napot. Hello and good day! Your report from Budapest is ready. Tomorrow, I’ll start my short series on famous Hungarians that I’ll finish at the end of the week. But first, an update from my life.

This Thursday, something magical happened. For the first time in a week, the sun appeared. It was gorgeous.

I realized that the previous week was possibly the longest time I had gone without sun before. Isn’t that odd? While it can get quite cloudy in Minneapolis, during the winter it usually is cold and clear. I don’t think it’s ever been a full week before. I honestly like the new experience of being in a cloudy city, but occasionally, ah, the sun does feel nice.

In case you don’t remember what cloudy Budapest looked like (well, and looks like again)

Yesterday, about fifteen BSM students joined Zoltan Buczolich, a professor at Eotvos Lorand University, and a number of Hungarian faculty on one of their biweekly mathematics hikes. The route Zoltan chose was a long one: a 12-mile trek along a chain of hills to visit the Budapest’s highest point. It took most of the daylight hours to make our way from outside the city limits through the forest and brush to the watchtower that marks the highest elevation in the city.

Our approximate route to the watchtower of Budapest

My roommates, Alex, from Whitman, (middle) and Sam (right). And me. At the highest point in Budapest. 

The hike was great exercise. I also found it extremely comforting. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve had to get used to the differences between Budapest and American cities—remember to weigh your vegetables before you go to the checkout counter, Nathaniel!—and it has taken some concerted effort to adjust. Out in the forest yesterday, I suddenly felt that I was back in Minnesota and I could relax. The variety of trees, the snow, and the trails felt the same. It was nice to feel at home away from home for a while.

Speaking of home, I made quite a stir at the beginning of the hike because of my Minnesotan attire. We were told that “the temperature on Saturday should be about 32 degrees at the beginning of the hike, warming up to around 40 by the afternoon.” Logically, I wore my boots, various jacket layers, and regular athletic shorts. Normal Minnesota outfit. But my fellow BSMers and the Hungarian faculty were worried for my poor bare legs. “Don’t you feel numb?” one of them asked, clearly unsettled.

Contrary to most predictions, the outfit worked fine. At one of the last stops, two female Hungarian professors approached Zoltan, talking rapidly in Hungarian and looking at me. He laughed. “They’re impressed,” he said. And then, “it’s not always easy to impress Hungarians.”

At a wine tasting event the other day with some BSMers. Szia!

Catch “Famous Hungarians Part I” tomorrow!


The Top Ten: First Impressions of Budapest

Yesterday morning, as I was walking around Budapest with Alex Shaw, the other Whittie on BSM this semester, we discussed which one word we would use to describe the city. We were along the Danube at the time, on the Buda side of the river. Looking out across the water, everything was gray. “Squat,” I said. “Brooding,” was his answer.

His adjective is the right one for the city. As we pass by people, they seem intent and thoughtful, as if they are working on some difficult problem in their heads. The clouds press down on the city—I haven’t seen any of the actual sun in the city yet—and the apartment buildings rise up to meet them, all stone with baroque filigree and large windows. The entire city really seems to brood.

On this, my second full day in Brooding Budapest, I thought that it would be a good time to go through my first impressions of the city.

Here are the top ten:

  1. It’s so warm! It may be gray, but it is certainly not cold here. At least to me. Yay!


  1. Building Height. One of the most remarkable things in Budapest is the complete lack of a skyline. It looks flat, simply because nearly every building in the densely populated Pest side of the river, called “City Center,” is between 4 and 8 stories tall. While there are several explanations, one of the primary reasons is that all of the buildings are old and haven’t been demolished. Many of them were built around the year 1896, when the government  commissioned the Parliament, museums, and other projects in honor of the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars entering Hungary.

Church steeples are the highest points in most Budapest neighborhoods. Full disclosure: the city actually does not look like this right now… credit:


Yeah, that is more like it.


  1. Ceiling Height. In stark contrast to the height of buildings, the ceilings everywhere are incredibly  tall. I noticed this phenomenon when I entered my apartment, where I will be living with Alex, Sam (who goes to Macalester) and another student. This is what I saw:

The front entryway.

While we may have a conventional horizontally-compact apartment, we are certainly not struggling for vertical space.

The door to my room!

A lone Hungarian “in uniform.”



  1. The Hungarian Uniform. Around the city, it’s easy to pick out the Hungarians, or so I think. They wear black jackets, and black hats and shoes. Except for the young, hip people, who wear sweatpants and white shoes (no pictures because they became elusive once I noticed the trend).

Several Hungarians in all black.


  1. No smiling. Hungarians rarely smile on the street. As Alex and I were walking, he mentioned something from our student handbook: culturally, smiling openly might be seen as a sign that one is slow. We decided to test this. He tried smiling to an older woman. She looked at him, but gave no response. I smiled politely to a fast-walking businessman, and he scowled back. So hypothesis tested. I might be a little slow.


  1. Smoking. Everyone smokes. It was so common on the street that I looked up some stats from May of 2016. While the smoking rate has dropped since 2009, apparently 41.7 percent of men and 28.5 percent of women are regular smokers, giving Hungary the dubious honor of having the highest age standardized rate of lung cancer in the world.


  1. Green Crosses. They stand for pharmacies. I was wondering too.


  1. Public Transportation: Trams, Busses and Metros, Oh My. I’ve heard that Budapest’s public transportation is good, but this is ridiculous. There is a bus or tram nearly everywhere, and the metro crisscrosses the city.


…and the metro (credit: Travel Budapest)


  1. Gyros Stands. They’re everywhere, and delicious.

  1. I’m Here. What? I’m in Budapest! Honestly, it hasn’t fully set in, but it’s been a great experience so far.

Me on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge!

Feel free to subscribe to get an email when I post each week. I think that I’m going to post some advice for other students studying abroad soon, in case you want to see that.

Safe and sound in Budapest,