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Category: Budapest

Math Everywhere!

It’s been quite a while since my last post, here’s a quick update on the courses I ended up taking:

  • Combinatorial Optimization. Taught by an Operations Research professor, this course concentrates on solving graph theory-based problems using algorithms. This is an interesting mix for me as a computer science and mathematics double major — I’ve seen many of the algorithms before, but never seen the proofs of why they are correct. Likewise, I’ve seen many of the proofs for graph theoretic results before, but never seen the algorithms used to obtain these results. It’s one thing to prove certain objects exist, it’s quite another thing to find those objects! This interchanging of algorithms and proofs makes this course one of my favorites (and most challenging).
  • Game Theory. My only applied mathematics course, Game Theory attempts to model conflicts in the real world through mathematics. While most Game Theory courses concentrate on 2×2 simultaneous move games and culminate with Nash’s equilibrium theorem, this course attempts to build up the tools for game theory in general by making multiple passes through the material. We are currently starting our third pass and are defining things such as a Rational Player through mathematics (a preorder, in fact), which I find very interesting. More on Hungarian teaching styles soon!
  • Mathematical Logic. While many people think of truth tables and Boolean circuits when they hear of logic, this course is more like the intersection between abstract algebra and computability theory. Highlights of this course include Godel’s Completeness and Incompleteness Theorems, primitive recursion, and a look into second order logic.
  • Mathematical Problem Solving (Audit). This course is offered as a problem solving course much less abstract than Conjecture and Proof (only really needing highschool math), but no less difficult. I didn’t originally plan on taking this course at all, but several friends told me it was their favorite and persuaded me to sit in on a few lectures. The professor is indescribably good at lecturing, I highly highly recommend any future BSM students to at least try MPS.
  • Set Theory. Starting with the fundamental idea of “what really is a collection of objects?”,  Set Theory begins with the classic naïve approach, examines some axioms such as the Zorn Lemma and Axiom of Choice, proves results in applications such as vector spaces and graphs, then dives into an axiomatic version of set theory as a response to Russell’s Paradox.  Perhaps one of the easier courses I’m taking, it’s nonetheless incredibly enlightening to examine the very building blocks of higher level mathematics, especially when taking it in parallel with Logic.
  • Hungarian Art and Culture. As one of the five or so humanities courses offered to BSM students, Culture is definitely worthwhile. Every week we examine a new facet of Hungarian culture such as music, politics, social issues, etc. We’ve also had the opportunity to attend a guided tour of the Hungarian National Gallery and next weekend will attend a play in the National Theater. I definitely recommend the course to anyone looking for a taste of Hungarian culture beyond what you will learn by just living here.

I will be updating this blog much more often now. Upcoming posts include a look into the mathematics culture here, how my lifestyle has adjusted, and a peek into the life of famous Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa!

Travel Update — September 8, 2013

Howdy, all. Sorry for the lack of updates, this last week I’ve been recovering from what amounts to the worst stomach bug I’ve had in…a few decades, actually! It hasn’t been fantastic. That said, I am all better and exciting events are on the horizon! For now, let me catch you all up on the last two weeks:

  • Sunday (August 25). This is a far way back. I think I explored the Buda side of the city this day, but cannot really remember.
  • Monday-Thursday. Of the three weeks in the language course, this week was by far the toughest. Class started at 9am, we had a 90 minute session, then a 30 minute break, 90 minute session, an hour lunch break, 90 minute session, 15 minute break, then a final 45 minute session that wrapped up at 4pm. The teacher tried to keep the course active and fun with games, especially later on in the day, but this is a lot of information to take in and retain. For prospective students looking for a way to get a head start: consider learning a couple dozen vocabulary words as a starting basis, then jump into learning the grammar suffixes. Fleshing out your vocabulary with things like numbers, places, etc. is the easy part, but the suffixes weigh you down mentally the first time you see them. You’ll do well in the course to already know a bit of what’s coming.
  • Friday-Sunday. Got sick! Not much to say, a blur of sleeping, eating, and antieating.
  • Monday. Monday was exciting, BSM had their first ever official convocation in conjunction with McDaniels of Europe college. The convocation placed students from both schools into the same room to talk for a bit, then the presidents and coordinators of each college spoke. Following the convocation they bused us over to the Danube for a cruise and buffet dinner. Bad time to be sick, but what can you do?
  • Tuesday. Still sick, kept sleeping.
  • Wednesday. While US citizens can enter the EU without a visa or residence permit,they eventually need to obtain the latter to stay in Hungary for more than 3 months. Wednesday the student coordinator got all 50 of the current students together and took us to apply for said permit. BSM does the best in terms of making sure you have everything you need for the application process, but it still ended up being a good 5-6 hour wait for a 15 minute application review. Be prepared!
  • Thursday-Saturday. Slowly starting to feel better, reviewed the language book some.

Not an exciting two weeks, but I promised I’d give an accurate account of the experience, so here you go! The good news is math classes start this next week, along with some events like a World Cup Qualifying match at the stadium close to the BSM school, so stay tuned!

Cultural Expectations

Tonight I want to share two experiences from the last week or so, and think a bit about the exact nature of culture changes and which differences result in what they call culture shock. First, the two experiences:

My landlady initially described this washer as a "flintstones machine." I don't really disagree!

1. My apartment’s appliances. Over this last summer I was fortunate enough to have an apartment built in the last year or so, with brand new appliances. When I say brand new appliances, I mean the really nice stuff. My current apartment is quite different, however. The fridge is half the size of an American one, and has no dedicated freezer door. The oven and stove are both lit with matches, and you need to hold the gas dial for an undisclosed-but-seemingly-fixed-but-also-random amount of time, and even then it sometimes goes out. The shower has the water heater directly attached, and sometimes the pilot light can go out, requiring it to be lit again with a match. The shower also has two knobs for hot and cold water, but if the hot knob is stationary then the flame might go down, causing the temperature to oscillate between scalding and ice cold. While these appliances clearly are different than the American ones I used this summer, they feel as European as the rest of the flat and I’ve had absolutely no problem adjusting to them as part of my home.

Look at what all I got charged for and the relative prices.

2. Hungarian interpretive food. Sure, Hungarians have their own unique dishes just like any other culture. What I find fascinating though is to taste the Hungarian interpretation of another cultures’ food. For example, in America we have “Chinese food” that we know isn’t really food from China, but more of an American interpretation of Chinese food. In a sense, American Chinese food is an American dish, part of our own culture — we have expectations for how it should taste. Likewise, Hungarians have their own Chinese food. In this segment, however, I want to concentrate on the Hungarian McDonalds I visited. First off, the few McDonalds I’ve seen in Hungary are two (or even three) stories tall. They differentiate from the food from the coffee, giving each their own floors and dining areas. Sitting down in a McDonalds for a while, I noticed that not a single Hungarian had a cup larger than the very smallest cup available, which was a stark contrast to the super-size American cups. Listening to the radio mingling through conversations, I heard a European voice singing in broken English the words “we stand strong for the red, white and blue.” Well, Hungary is red, white and… green. Perhaps this place isn’t so much a Hungarian interpretation of American food as much as an attempt to bring America to Eastern Europe. Not so much a surprise, all things considered, but I walked out thinking that this McDonalds experience felt very different from the American one; it didn’t feel right.

While these two tidbits are somewhat interesting on their own, I want you to think a bit about the contrasting feelings I walked away with. The first one felt very different from what I’m used to, and yet I had no difficulty adjusting. On the other hand, the McDonalds felt very alien from the expectations I’ve developed from experience. In a sense, you could say I had more culture shock going into a McDonalds than I did settling in a European flat. Does this statement seem counterintuitive?

For a few days I chewed on these thoughts and I think I’ve finally pieced together the difference: expectation. I’ve never lived on my own in an apartment in America for more than a few months at a time, I’ve never researched and chosen appliances, or even used them long enough to feel really attached to them. Coming to Hungary, I expected to live in a European apartment where I knew different cultural aspects like shopping more often affect the living style (having a smaller fridge, etc.). My expectation for the living arrangement was that I wouldn’t have an expectation for the details. On the other hand, I had an expectation for McDonalds! I have a cultural expectation for what a fast food joint looks like, smells like, feels like; I know that ketchup and napkins and straws are all free and also know that Americans like to grab as much of these as they want. But to be charged for these items, and to see the local Hungarians understand this system and adapt to it? All of a sudden my expectations were broken and I was able to observe the culture directly, respectively. That’s kind of cool if you ask me.

At the end of the day, what is culture shock? If you asked me right now I’d say it’s the feeling that all expectations you have will be broken. You expect (subconsciously) to speak English but are greeted with a foreign language. You expect to be able to buy your favorite foods in grocery stores, then find out the country doesn’t carry the items at all. Perhaps the best way to manage culture shock, then, is simply to contain it. Understand what you should expect and what you shouldn’t, and walk into situations with an open mind. It’s not a meaningful experience if you don’t learn something new, right?

Travel Update — August 24, 2013

Hey all,

Well, the Wednesday post didn’t happen, so I’ll cover the whole week in this one. Before I start, though, here’s the general timeline of my study in Budapest:

August 15 – 20 Arrive and settle in Budapest
August 21 – September 6 Intensive language course
September 9 – December 20 Budapest Semesters in Mathematics courses

As you can see, this week was split between settling in and starting the language course, and it was quite hectic. So let’s dive into it!

  • Sunday. On Sunday about a dozen BSM students met up to explore the city some and get to know each other. We started at the BSM school and headed to the Danube, and from there ended up at a cafe for lunch. Somewhat of a local dish, I had chicken over noodles (think spaetzle) with paprika sauce. Seriously, I could live off of bread soaked in paprika sauce, this stuff is fantastic. After lunch the group split and my half went up to Margaret Island, which is a recreational island in the middle of the Danube between the Buda and Pest sides of Budapest. After a total of about 8 hours of walking we headed our different ways. All the BSM students are spread across both Buda and Pest, either in apartment or homestays.
  • Monday. A bit sore from the previous day’s walking, some BSM students met at the Great Market Hall for lunch and some shopping (see cover photo). Finally was able to get some langos on the first floor, specifically a sweeter one with sweet cottage cheese and powdered sugar. Cannot go wrong for only 800Ft (~$4)! The ground floor below acts as a farmers market of sorts, with stands for anything from chicken pieces to dried fruits (all by the decigram, of course!). In the basement lurks the various and invasive smells of both fish and pickled items. Market Hall is definitely a sight to see and taste and smell, I’m sure you will hear much more of it in my future!
  • Tuesday. On Tuesday was Hungary’s national independence holiday, St. Stephen’s Day. The streets were filled with music and stands with giant pretzels, pastries, and candies. A couple dozen BSM students met up again and we walked around the city, then walked up Gellert Hill to the Citadel. Finally, the day ended in a long firework display synchronized with Hungary’s famous classical music. Check out my Twitter page for some pictures of the day’s festivities!
  • Wednesday. Wednesday marked the beginning of the language course, and they are not joking when they describe it as intensive! For those unfamiliar with Hungarian, there are 44 letters, and each are pronounced a single way (no matter where they are in the word). Further, Hungarians like their suffixes, making words quite long! However, these qualities are not negatives, but characteristics resulting in a structure with its own unique faults and beauties. I am definitely looking forward to having a better grasp on the language!
  • Thursday. The first half of Thursday was a typical set of languages lessons, but in the afternoon we all headed to the BSM school for pre-orientation (read: paperwork). Oddly enough, as I was sitting there in a room of 50 math students, I realized that this was the first time in over a week when someone has addressed a roomful of people in English. Would it be strange to say that it felt foreign?
  • Friday. With BSM business out of the way for a little while, Friday began a long string of back-to-back language sessions from 9am till 4pm. It’s a humbling experience 🙂
  • Saturday. Having a better idea of what my life in the upcoming 4 months will be like, Saturday seemed like a good day to get my day-to-day life (apartment, cell phone, etc.) in order. I headed over to Arena Plaza as a central location and tried out some Hungarian Chinese food (quite good!), acquired a SIM card for my cell phone, and walked through the magnificently large Tesco hypermarket. While maybe not as exciting as a day at the Hungarians baths or a trip to Munich, I must say that it felt good to have a day to feel at home.

As usual, let me know if you’d like to hear more about anything! Pictures from several of these events will be on Twitter soon, they’re…developing.

Come back tomorrow for a reflection on what precisely we mean by a “cross cultural experience” and why the subtle experiences seem to have the biggest impact.

Introduction: Timothy in Budapest

Hello! My name is Timothy and this semester I am studying in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM) program in Budapest, Hungary. Details about the program are below, but first I want to outline how I’ll be using this blog. To communicate the different facets of the experience and have a regular flow of updates, I plan on posting on this schedule:

Sunday Reflection on my study abroad experience
Monday Problem of the week statement
Tuesday Pictures (Twitter)
Thursday Pictures (Twitter)
Friday Problem of the week solution and discussion
Saturday Overview of my recent activities


In more detail:

  • Reflection. I’m not on vacation in Europe, and neither am I studying mathematics in America. What’s up with this study abroad experience in the context of both of these individual activities? How do they interact and what am I learning? In this weekly reflection I hope to share some of my perspective as it develops.
  • Problem of the week. It’s not a mathematics program without some actual math, right? Every week I’ll post a favorite problem, discovered from my studies here or otherwise. Participate actively and email me your solution before I post mine on Friday, and perhaps I’ll bring back a little prize for you from Hungary 🙂
  • Pictures. Along with this blog I’ll be updating a Twitter feed ( Tuesdays and Thursdays I’ll specifically put an interesting picture or two up, so check it out!
  • Activity overview. Sure, I might be learning about life and math, but what actually brought these changes about? Twice a week I’ll overview what I’ve been up to and what you can expect to do if you choose to participate in this program too!

Finally, the purpose of this blog is to share my experience to others, not to talk into a void. Please do communicate with me so we have an active dialog going! Commenting on this blog and on Twitter are particularly appropriate means of communicating, but I will also answer emails if needed. No question is too silly or bothersome, so please do share your thoughts!

I hope you enjoy sharing a bit of my travels!


About the program

Home to several prominent mathematicians such as George Pólya, Paul Erdös, and Béla Bollobás, Hungary has a rich tradition of mathematics excellence. Designed in 1983, the BSM program allows around 70 undergraduate students from North America to study mathematics taught, in English, by Hungarian professors. More information about the BSM program can be found at the American website ( or the Hungarian website (

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