Friday, December 31, 2010

Book of the year

Since I didn't blog about it when I read it during my summer vacation I introduce this book in the special section book of the year: "Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes" by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. This is a hilarious book that present the most important philosophic concepts and schools and illustrates them using jokes. It also makes one think of the anatomy of a joke which stretches common concepts and assumptions to their limit.
In case I didn't convince you to read it, here are the authors presenting their book:

A guy goes to his doctor and asks: "What do I have to do to live 100 years?". And the doctor tells him: "Well, you have to eat a banana each morning for 36500 days".

Happy new year 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another communist secret service (aka securitatea) story unfolds

It's 1974, the year when Ceausescu grabbed all the executive powers in Romania by proclaiming himself ("being elected") chief of the state (until then he was just the chief of the communist party). A high-school student (Stelian Mihalas) wanted to protest against this and distributed a questionnaire among his classmates asking who would they choose for president and about how the country was run. Stelian and his classmates were immediately investigated by the secret police and he was expelled from school although he a was a brilliant student in mathematics. Meanwhile a young student (William Totok - who was in the same circle of friends with Hertha Muller) heard about this story and tried to gather some more details in order to pass the information outside the country. He asked a colleague of Stelian for information, but this guy (Ovidiu Tender) went to the secret police (via his father who was the chief of border police) to tell them about the people interested in this story. William got arrested eventually, spent some time in prison and later on emigrated in Germany (like Herthe Muller he belonged to the German minority living in Romania). Stelian finished his studies in another school, graduated in mathematics, got a Ph.D. in US after the revolution and returned to teach mathematics at Faculty of Mathematics from Timisoara. And, of course, Ovidiu Tender became one of the most wealthy people in Romania, very well connected in ex-communist political circles. (see the full story here and here)

Those were the days of our lives...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Of cats and water

You may know that most of the cats do not like very much water, except when they drink it. So they developed an original way of drinking water, much different for the one of dogs for example, in order to minimize the splash that might land on their fur. This involves the use of superficial tension force on the liquid surfaces. As the researcher (Roman Stocker from MIT) that produced this study put it: "I would say cats know more about fluid mechanics than dogs" :) The full story can be found here.
On the other hand, cats sometimes enjoy water (or snow in fact), as can be seen in the following movie:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Re-build this city

Bucharest was badly damaged during the communist era. Entire neighbourhoods were demolished to make room for working class apartment buildings and the likes of "House of the People". Unfortunately this trend continued after the revolution, so high office buildings were built in house areas, next to beautiful churches. Houses classified as monuments (and thus forbidden to be demolished) are left to crumble and fall by their "nouveau riche" owners who just want to build another apartment or office building. When I found out (see the full story here) about this building

... I thought that maybe there is a hope to re-build this city. Since I went to Barcelona to see Gaudi's work and I also saw an exhibition about Hundertwasser in Budapest a few years ago, I will definitely go to Siriu street to see this beautiful building.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Orange did it again

After Paloma Faith and Mika, Orange produced a new advertisement having a very nice background song, from The Ting Tings this time:

Since I have very low expectations from a mobile operator at this point (just a phone with long battery life, a universal charger (sic!) and a reasonable candy-bar design + some national minutes) I would switch from Vodafone to Orange if they promise me (in writing) that they would provide me a very nice song every 3-4 months.

Friday, October 08, 2010


It all started somewhere in high-school. I didn't read much at that time: I remember the Romanian language teacher asked us in the first class in ninth grade who is our favourite writer and most of us were completely puzzled, choosing in the end between Jules Vernes and Alexandre Dumas. Then a colleague passed me the Sven Hassle series and then I discovered the SF series of Asimov and Dune. But another group of my colleagues had some higher standards and were reading serious literature. And someday (in the tenth grade I guess) a "cult" novel started to circulate in this group of friends and they urged me to read it (remember everybody reading The Alchemist in 2001 or The Da Vinvi Code in 2004?). This was "The Storyteller" of Llosa. The style was new to me, I had to focus to follow the story line, but I liked the magical sensation created by the book and its message. Then "Conversation at the Cathedral" followed and I was already hooked. "Lituma in the Andes", "The War of the End of the World" (the revolution book), "In Praise of the Stepmother" (the wicked book), "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" (the hilarious book), "The Feast of the Goat", I would read these books time and again. So do I have a favourite writer nowadays? Yes, it is Mario Vargas Llosa, with or without the Nobel prize.

P.S. I sometimes regret I didn't attend his lectures at George Washington University in the fall of 2003. It was after all only a couple of metro stations away from College Park...

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mika - Orange Summer Party

Last week I saw Mika live at Orange Summer Party 2010 on a beach in Mamaia. Mika has a very good voice and I actually bought his first LP after liking the first three released songs, but I didn't imagine he is also such a show man. The concert was great, he connected all the time with the public and he also spoke a lot in Romanian. See below Rain live in Mamaia 2010:

Monday, July 19, 2010

What to tax and how to spend the public funds

Since the crisis is still here (now with the sovereign debt flavor) and nobody declared it unconstitutional yet, Romanians discovered a new domain where everybody has an opinion after football and politics: the tax system and budget deficit. So here are my two cents on this issue.

The budget deficit can be reduced in two ways: by increasing the income, or by decreasing the spending. In order to have more income the state can either improve the collection rate of the existing taxes by simplifying the forms and cracking down on tax evasion (that could be hard given the corruption levels of the tax authorities)
or by increasing some taxes. Regarding taxes my preference is for a system that tax rather consumption then work. Since the whole human race's consumption levels is unsustainable on the long term, any measure that discourages this consumption is welcomed from my point of view. From taxation point of view this would be higher VAT, excises on energy products and other goods, property taxes (which are very low in Romania), road taxes, CO2 tax. It's true that I don't feel very affected by these types of taxes since I always enjoy starring at the ceiling and thinking of a math problem :) On the other hand, the taxes on work should be lowered so that people are encouraged to work (legally). Note that in Romania currently there are 4-4.5 millions of employees out of a working age (18-62) population of 10 millions people. Even if you take out maybe 2 millions migrant workers there are still 3.5 millions who are not formally working in this country!

Now, there are some opinions that whatever mix of taxes the government will choose the state will not be able to get more than 32% of GDP as budget income. In this case the only real option for getting a balanced budget is to cut the spending to 32% of GDP (currently they are at around 40%). That should lead to lay-offs in the public sector. Another source of economy would a more efficient public spending and procurement, but this is hard to do quickly given the level of corruption in this area.

As you can see the fight against corruption should always be a high priority because it affects both tax collection and public money spending. That is what is corruption all about in the end.

P.S. Enough economics, I'll end this post with a good Spanish restaurant where I ate a couple of nights ago: Alioli: paella, creme catalane and sangria were all good.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

More live music

I remember I was in the eight grade when I was asked by an older friend: are you a rapper, a rocker or a depecher (yes, Depeche Mode was a distinct category at that time). I didn't know what to answer at that time, but only a couple of months later (I was already in high school) a colleague gave me the tape with the brand new Metallica LP, Metallica 91. This was the start of my "rocker career". Metallica and Megadeth are on the harder part of the rock I listen, I usually don't listen the likes of Slayer and Sepultura. The big 4 concert from last week-end was nice, Metallica were really good and also the public was really engaged, singing along on most of their songs.
Here is a sample of live Metallica - Fade To Black:

But, that was not all, the week-end was closed with a performance at Bucharest National Opera, Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. The scenography was surprising, with rows of chairs like those of a stadium and the choir sitting all the time on those chairs, but I liked it. The performance was very good and I especially liked Irina Iordachescu, who was very expressive in Liu's role. Again, a sample, but with a different tenor :)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music and commercials

Commercial always try to draw your attention, to make you remember them and it's often the music from a commercial that accomplishes that. Sometimes the song is so good, that it can reach the radio's play-lists. This is what happened with Supergirl from Reamon in 2004 after a commercial for Connex (Vodafone). Or it can become a ring tone on my mobile like Brother Lee from this commercial for ClickNet:

Or it can lead you to discover a new artist like Koop (Coca Cola) or Paloma Faith (Orange):

I can't wait to turn on the TV and watch some more commercials, you never know what new song will hit me... :)

Monday, June 07, 2010

Do you think you're clever?

Under this title there is a very entertaining book about the questions for undergraduate admission at Oxford and Cambridge universities. They are much more than simply reproducing facts and formulas from a manual. They test your combined imagination, logic and knowledge. Not to mention that you have to improvise an answer on the spot. As Pablo Picasso's quote: "Computers are useless,they can only give you answers", the real gem of this book is the collection of those challenging questions, although the author offers also his own sample answers.

The question I liked the most is: how would you describe a man to a Martian?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

For Those About To Rock

I must admit my relative ignorance about AC/DC until now. I knew just a few of their songs and I never listen an entire album of them. But the AC/DC concert in Bucharest really rocked. Great songs, great show, a wonderful performance. Get a taste of it here:

P.S. My rock culture is centered around Led Zeppelin, so I couldn't help to notice that Back in Black somehow resembles The Ocean.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Music, British Music

The other radio that I listen to is Radio Guerilla and I noticed a while ago that they have a tendency to promote British music. And I like it, even if it's pop or (indie) rock, Britain is still producing some quality music. Here are three samples from this year:

If the first song sounds familiar, I reversed engineered it from this commercial:

...meaning that I got so hooked on it that I memorized some lyrics from the commercial, then I searched on Google to see who is singing that song.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mastering EJB3.0

Yes, it's a new book and I almost finished it. I read it for a certification exam, after that I'll return to some more novels. It's not entirely new to me since I work with EJB 3.0 for one year and a half now. It's good important concepts like ORM, dependency injection and AOP are becoming part of the official JEE specification, it's bad it took them so long to react. These concepts are de facto standards in the Java world thanks to Hibernate and Spring frameworks.
I also still remember when I first heard about AOP(aspect oriented programming) in Bill Pugh's class at UMD. It seemed a very natural paradigm and I'm glad it made it to mainstream programming so fast.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Last Cato

It seems that Dan Brown wasn't original even with his plot idea: following an ancient church secret by taking your characters in a quest around Europe. The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi, which was written before "The DaVinci Code", takes the reader into a quest to discover the "earthly paradise" as described by Dante in his "Divine Comedy". This is the initiation process to become a member of a secret society that is the keeper of the True Cross. The book is full of historical references, but the style is better than Dan's Brown as all these details are better integrated in the overall story. The ending was not very good, as the description of the "earthly paradise" is not credible, but since no such thing could ever exist it's hard to imagine it in a convincing way, especially that it is setup in middle age technological era.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An education, but which one?

An education is the social movie of this year. It tells the story of a girl who is seduced out of school and into the easy life of her playboy lover. In the end she returns to the school kind of education. Nevertheless, it is worth questioning the traditional education ans seeking ways of improving it. Probably the worst part about going to school is when it is not fun. Well, the breaks might be fun, but if you sit for an hour and the teacher is boring and you don't understand why do you have to study that subject it can become very annoying.
Here is an alternative view about what the education system should be about:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Earth Hour - 2010

This year even more cities, countries and ordinary people participated at the Earth Hour event. Year after year we become more and more dependent on electricity. This year I turned off everything in the house except for the fridge. I also didn't cheated by using the laptop or mobile phone which run on batteries. A counter movement called Edison Hour (see details here) was started in order to stress that electricity is good and we shouldn't go back to the dark ages, but instead we should try to solve the environmental problems by discovering some new technology. I think these guys are missing the point of the Earth Hour campaign. It is about waste, consumerism and selfishness. And I also see it as a reality check: how dependent are we on all these tools powered by electricity? What happens if someday an accident will leave us with no electricity for a day or a week? Are we even going to survive?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The land of green plums

I finished reading "The land of green plums" ("Animalul inimii" in Romanian) by Herta Muller. It's a somber book where the meaning of the universe disintegrates under the weight of the secret police and the communist party. The humanity is squeezed out of people until they commit suicide or leave the country. But many of those who try to leave also die in fact cause borders were like a prison wall with barbed wire and heavy army surveillance. And this barbed wire survives even today between Romania and Moldova. After the fall from power of the communist party in Moldova last year they finally decided to take this barbed wire down on the border between the two countries. One more prison is falling down.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Teach me tonight

While in high school I used to go about once a month to some jazz lessons. I was not passionate about jazz, but some of my friends were, so we all were attending the concerts of Harry Tavitian and Corneliu Stroe. Harry was literally jumping on the piano keyboard at moments, he was just a little man, but so alive. It all came back when I went to the last concert of "Teach me tonight" series. This time Tavitian was joined by Ion Baciu jr. at piano and Cserey Csaba at percution. It was a fine concert, suited for Christmas with many adaptations of Christmas carols.

As a bonus, here is the original "Teach me tonight" song performed by Nat King Cole:

I didn't have time to blog about many events, but I attended other performances this fall, so I will just mention them for the record: "Princess Turandot" from National Theater from Sibiu, "All My Sons" by Arthrur Miller at National Theater from Bucharest and "La Boheme" and National Opera from Bucharest.