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Archive for January, 2010

Turos

Hungary has this cheese called Turos that the Hungarians are in love with. Most often you see it in Turorudi – a refrigerated chocolate covered candy that you can buy almost anywhere. You can also get it in pastries (it’s really good) and apparently you can buy it at the store because I found some yesterday and I bought it. It’s kind of like cottage cheese, but not as regular in shape and without the runny stuff between the curds I guess. It tastes a little like cottage cheese, but not really. It’s pretty hard to explain, really. But I bought a bag of it yesterday and then had to figure out what to do with it. We ate a little bit on bread and it was pretty good that way, but sometime last night it hit me – muffins! It would be good in muffins!

So, this morning I got up and mixed up some muffins, mixed a little sugar in with some of the turos and then spread it on top of the batter before baking the muffins. Unfortunately, I have no muffin tins here. So I make muffin cakes in a 9×9 glass pan. It works really well, actually, and that’s the form my turomuffins took today. I was really hoping that the batter would rise up around the turos and make the turos more of a filling type thing, but it ended up more of a topping. It was pretty good anyway, but I think next time I’ll put a little more sugar in the turos. So are you all so proud of me? I came up with my own experimental muffin recipe with a cultural ingredient! I feel like such a foodie.

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Wednesdays are Ivan’s day that he doesn’t have classes, so we try to get out of the house and do something fun. Wednesday is also “pastry day” – our self declared day of the week when we go for a walk to the metro stop to get pastries for breakfast. It’s a nice little walk and we usually let Avery walk the whole way instead of strapping her down in the stroller. So this Wednesday we bundled up against the sub-freezing weather, stopped at the pastry shop at the metro station and headed to the Transporation Museum (Közlekedési Múzeum) for our weekly outing.

You have to pay extra to take pictures in most of the museums here and I don’t typically bother because most things in museums don’t lend themselves to unprofessional photography very well, but I think this museum might actually have turned out some good pictures. It had A LOT of models, replicas, and exhibits that varied in size from the size of your hand to the actual train in the picture that looks like it’s chugging out of the front of the museum itself. There were trains, cars, boats, airplanes, motorcycles, coaches, bicycles, ships, and even a model of the Russian Soyuz space capsule, complete with a landing parachute that stretched all the way up to the ceiling and back down again. It was pretty impressive.

They had a lot of cool things outside, too that I was able to take pictures of without having to pay extra. One of my favorite parts of the whole museum was the display of parts of the different bridges over the Danube in Budapest. Most of this display was outside and there were links and sections of the chain bridge especially, but the other bridges too.

This is a picture of a section of the chain bridge. I don’t know a whole lot about it and the links they have on display don’t look much like the typical links I think of when I think of a chain, but they’re pretty cool to see anyway. I think the bridges are one of my favorite parts of Budapest. This came as kind of a surprise to me. I’ve never lived in a place with a lot of bridges and it’s kind of fun.

Here’s another cool picture of the train. The thing is really huge. Dad – I took the picture with the airplane on the roof just for you. After I’m rich enough to buy you an airplane, maybe I’ll work on a museum for you to put it on top of too :)

Some basic facts for anyone interested: It cost us 1500 ft for both of us to go (Avery was free), not the 200 ft that Wikipedia said it was (we were a little surprised). Apparently Ivan was 1000 ft and I was only 500 ft because of Avery. That’s about $5.00 for Ivan and $2.50 for me. It closes early in the Winter (4:00 PM) again, not the 5:00 PM that Wikipedia claims (that was last week’s surprise).

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Avery Cuteness

Avery always surprises me with how polite she can be. She often says “Thank you” unprompted when we give her something, although we still have to prompt her to say “please.” Unless she realizes she isn’t getting what she wants for some reason (usually because we don’t want her to have it), then she’s willing to give “please” a try.

She recently learned “excuse me.” She picked it up on her own, neither of us really taught it to her, but anytime she burps or passes gas she makes an “oh” face with her mouth, covers it with her hand and says “me-me.” She usually does it about three times in a row. The best part is she does it anytime Ivan or I burp too.

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Irony

Ivan and I finally decided to get me a monthy transportation pass instead of doing trip by trip tickets. We’ve discussed this for a month now and finally decided we’d do it for the last month I’m here. So we take my picture and money to the ticket office, get everything stamped and glued and laminated and I’m good to go. We then proceed to the metro station, where we get down the steps and no one so much as looks at us sideways as we walk in without punching a ticket. This is very strange as I’ve NEVER passed through that doorway without someone looking at me expectantly as I punch my ticket. Two more metro stops, the same story and Ivan begins to notice that there are an awful lot of official looking people in yellow vests. Yes, folks, I bought myself a monthly transportation pass on the first day of a public transportation strike. It’s been over a week, and I have yet to pull my nice, laminated, picture included transportation pass out of my wallet. And this whole time I could have been riding the metro for free. Grrrr.

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Fine Art

On Wednesday we went to Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest’s Museum of Fine Art. It’s a fabulous, huge building and they have a special exhibit called “Boticelli to Titian” that we went to see.  They had paintings on loan from museums all over the world, all showcasing the Italian Renaissance. The most interesting part to me was to see the development of 3 dimensional space. It’s probably kind of obvious and amateurish, but I thought it was interesting to compare the earlier paintings and their flatter, stylized figures and space with the later paintings that gave a definite impression of depth. Ivan was so convinced by one painting that he thought it really extended past the wall it hung on. He was a little shocked when he went around the corner and the wall behind it was flat.

Some highlights: the most publicized painting there was DaVinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” although it wasn’t really my favorite. I liked Bellini’s “Angel of the Annunciation and Virgin Annunciate” and another by a name I looked at three times so I would remember it and still forgot. Boticelli’s “The Story of Virginia” was interesting.

The painting I keep thinking about the most was a kind of scary painting at first. I can’t remember the title unfortunately, but it pictured a woman sitting on a throne. The woman is very dark and has almost freakish coloring, and Ivan and I both were fairly repulsed by her. The interesting part is the difference in style between how she is painted and how the throne she is sitting on is painted. She’s very dark and one dimensional, while the throne seems to leap out of the painting around her. The plaque next to the painting described the effect a lot better, but it was an interesting contrast between the gothic and renaissance styles.

After the museum we went and took a look at Hősök Tere where there’s a huge memorial of the “coolest” Hungarians I guess you could say. Apparently it used to be the coolest Hungarians on the left and then the coolest Hapsburgs on the right, but after some damage to the monument during WWII the Hungarians found an opportunity to replace the not-so-cool-anymore Hapsburgs with some more popular Hungarians.

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Yesterday there were several inches of wet snow on the ground, so we thought we should let Avery have some fun outside. She certainly did have fun, and she charmed the old lady next door.

On a lark I decided to make a snowman, and then I made a snowbaby for Avery to play with. She carried it around and tried to make it bigger. She killed one snowbaby, which is okay, but we told her she can’t treat her baby sister that way.
Avery and Daddy with a snowman and snowbaby

Since I wasn’t cold after making the first snowman (and snowbaby), and we still had plenty of snow I decided to make another parent. We ended up with Mommy, Daddy, and Avery. Also if you look closely you can see that Mommy is pregnant with a little snowfetus.
snow family with hats on

The next day we noticed that one of our neighbors had added noses to our family, but they had done it on the wrong side!  This picture is taken from the back so that Daddy is on the left.  He does have eyes though and you’ll notice the fetching mustache as well. And of course you can’t miss the massive aquiline noses on Mommy and Daddy.  For some reason the baby doesn’t have a nose.snow family with noses

As I’m sure you also noticed the happy couple is holding hands.  It’s a symbol of our undying love for each other.  Rachel, I promise to love you for as long as these snowmen hold hands.  And maybe even longer!

Update: After two days a fair amount of rain, I no longer am required to love Rachel.  Whew! It was really starting to cramp my style.melted snowmen

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In honor of the sesquicentennial of its release, I read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (for some reason I prefer the full title to the more common Origin of Species). I finished about a month ago, but have put off writing about it until now.

I will not be writing a book review, teaching evolution, or debating it. Many others have done so. I’m just getting down a few of my thoughts about the book and evolution in general, as well as some things that I learned while reading it.

Evolution by any other name

The first thing I learned is that the term Natural Selection comes from the term Selection which is defined as man purposefully (and sometimes unconsciously) selecting desirable traits and breeding those animals or plants to produce better offspring. This would likely have been a much more common concept at that time when more people were involved in agriculture. Also, Darwin never uses the word evolution (though interestingly he uses the word revolution 4 times in different contexts). Instead he uses a phrase that I found quite charming: descent with modification.

A quaint breakthrough

One of the first things that I noticed is how old it seems. I know that may seem obvious, but many of the things he wonders about we simply take for granted. For example, he doesn’t understand why animals vary within a species, and he is unable to explain how breeds often “revert” to characteristics that haven’t been present for up to 20 generations. He uses the analogy of mixing blood, but realizes it doesn’t work. Instead he comes to the conclusion that:

When a character which has been lost in a breed, reappears after a great number of generations, the most probable hypothesis is, not that the offspring suddenly takes after an ancestor some hundred generations distant, but that in each successive generation there has been a tendency to reproduce the character in question, which at last, under unknown favourable conditions, gains an ascendancy.

I suppose this may have been deep insight for his day, but I wanted to scream back in time that it was simply a recessive trait. I wanted to explain genetics to him (Darwin was apparently unaware of the work of Mendel his contemporary). His ignorance serves to make his discovery even more amazing. If someone were to explain genetics and DNA and all the other advances that have been made in this area in the last 150 years he would probably smack himself in the forehead and say, “Duh, everything makes sense now.” (At least it’s fun to imagine a Victorian Charles Darwin with his huge beard saying “Duh”.)

I felt that the book was important for me because it made me realize how people thought before certain things were discovered. I tend to have a hard time remembering how I thought before I knew something. (e.g. How did I look at the world before I learned about differential equations? or What did I believe before I believed in evolution? Was there ever such a time?) Reading On the Origin of Species served to remind me that our current ways of thinking will soon seem quaint. And that’s a good thing to remember.

What we haven’t learned

Darwin spends a good deal of effort explaining that the concept of a species is inherently fuzzy. At the time many naturalists were concerned with whether two beings belonged to different species or were merely different varieties (or breeds) of the same species. He goes to great lengths to point out that there isn’t really a difference between a species and a variety–it’s all a matter of degree. Species are not distinct entities, rather individuals form a continuum of variation (though of course it’s not really a continuum since there are finitely many different genetic codes less than a fixed length). This is one lesson that I think we haven’t learned very well in that last 150 years, or at least that I didn’t learn. I’m sure biologists understand this, and perhaps if you had asked me I could have told you, but I didn’t conceptualize it that way. My mental model of species was of them being separate and distinct.

Darwin spends several chapters dealing with the difficulties of the theory. He discusses the imperfection of the geological record (which has improved significantly since his time) as a potential problem, as well as how seemingly complex things like instinct and eyes could possibly have come about in this manner (Hint: as long as each step along the way is beneficial it can work). He discusses several aspects of hybridism which I found interesting but am not qualified to discuss (you’ll have to read about them yourself–it’s not too difficult to read).

Religion

Sadly, I feel that I must address the topic of religion. This section should be considered optional reading unless you are a creationist or interested in the evolution-religion debate. I wish that this weren’t necessary, but until the majority of people are at least willing to consider that evolution might be true (and stop pushing for creationism to be taught in science class), I think we’ll have to keep talking about it.

In my mind one of the most compelling evidences for descent with modification over creation is the geographical distribution of species. Why, as Darwin points out, would marsupials only be found in South America and Australia (and nearby islands) if they were created by God? Why would cave fish be more closely related to their non-cave neighbors than to cave fish in other places who share nearly identical environments?

Some creationists have proposed that God made fossils and planted other evidence for evolution to force us to have faith. I cannot believe this. God is not a liar. Or if he is, maybe he doesn’t deserve to be called God.

In any case, which is more miraculous, a God who can create a static world of well-defined species or a God that can set things in motion which will, after millions of years, give rise to a vibrant, varied and beautiful planet (dare I say universe)? If one truly believes that God is omnipotent then surely he could create a universe that will lead to any given set of “species” by the end (or by the middle for that matter). In other words I see no reason to believe that God can create man in his own image, but only if he does it all at once. Who am I to say that God isn’t powerful enough to use evolution to create life if he wants to?

In case you are wondering, the LDS church officially has no position on evolution and teaches it at church schools, but in my experience many members seem to believe that the church’s position is against evolution. This is doubtless due in part to several statements made (unofficially) by some leaders back in the days when the church forbade birth control and interracial marriage. The Mormon church, so fond of eternal progression, should be the first to embrace descent with modification as a wonderful analog and teaching aid.

I suspect most Mormons who reject evolution in favor of creationism do so because they fear giving in to the world (intellectualism). The problem is that in doing so they give in to fundamentalist christianity and a literal reading of the bible, which I personally believe is a much greater threat to Mormonism in the short term. I would be happy if Mormon leaders would follow the lead of the Catholics and officially accept that evolution can be compatible with Christianity, but I’m afraid that doing so might cause some who believe in creationism too much to become disaffected.

Hopefully, Mormons and fundamentalist christians will eventually come to accept evolution, just as they have accepted heliocentrism (I don’t have much hope for people like the Flat Earth Society).

Sidenotes

A recent Radiolab episode discusses, among other things, the work of Dmitri Beliaev, a geneticist in Stalinist Russia. In order to escape certain death for being a Darwinian (incidentally doesn’t Stalin killing evolutionists prove it’s true :-), he started a fox farm in Siberia. He kept the most “domesticated” foxes and used the rest for fur coats. After only 10 years the foxes were noticeably domesticated. It turns out it may be because domesticated foxes are more juvenile in a very real sense (to find out more you’ll have to listen–it’s worth it). So perhaps when Jesus said for of such is the kingdom of heaven and Isaiah said The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb they were speaking about the same thing.

Many people feel that Darwin was greatly influenced by reading Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (I really like the long titles), and that in fact it may have been Smith’s theory which led to Darwin’s breakthrough. If you think about it the theory is the same in both cases: many small, selfish decisions taken together can create a (locally) “good” system. This is why I find it ironic that many people are religiously devoted to free market economics and against evolution. It’s a good thing I no longer believe in the inherent rationality of our species.

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