Back From The East

Most of my notes and photos from the World Science Forum are up on the World Academy of Young Scientists website, so if you're looking for those you can find them all on the WAYS site.

I already wrote about my initial second impressions of the World Science Forum, and not much has changed about that, though I did finally meet Hugues Lantuit, President of the Permafrost Young Researchers Network, in person, and we hung out for lots of the conference. Like most of the people at WAYS, he's a total overachiever with a sharp wit and a wicked sense of humor. He also curses like a sailor, as I would soon find out. During the conference, I didn't have time to show the visitors much of the city, but the WSF receptions on Thursday and Friday were pretty great.

Thursday morning, during the incredible breakfast at the hotel – the Hungarians know how to fry a sausage, let me tell you – I met up with Hugues and we walked up Vaci Utca (a beautiful, beautiful pedestrian walking street along the Danube lined with trendy shops) to the Hungarian Academy of Science, just before the Parliament. Security was rather tight with the presidents of four countries there, but we got in without incident, checked our coats, and met up with some other WAYS members in the main hall. With the 'Heads of State' sessions starting, Daniel Mietchen (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences), his girlfriend Ji Hyun, Mande Holford, Michael Fischer (founder of the World Lecture Project, and of course Gaell Mainguy, President of WAYS, joined us. The heads of state panel was, well, everything I had hoped for, and let's leave it at that. The president of the Hellenic Republic, though, gave a passionate and relevant speech about serious need for change in our attitudes on the environment.

Thursday evening after the panels we went to some museum building whose name I forget on the Pest side of Budapest, at the top of a hill from where you can see most of Buda. It's a really, really pretty city, you know, and the view from the top is nothing short of breathtaking.

The reception started with a neat laser light show by a famous Hungarian artist, then the buffet opened, with all the delicious Hungarian cuisine you could ask for.

One of the highlights of the evening – and indeed of the whole conference – for me was having dinner with Mande, when Arden L. Bement Jr., Director of the National Science Foundation, came to join us. I had seen his talk during the panel "Science and Innovation as a Global Enterprise", and lots of what he had said resonated strongly with me. He stressed the importance of solid, well-thought-out cyberinfrastructure, and the need for social scientists to get more involved in the building of virtual communities.

When he joined Mande and I, we chatted about this, the growing movement in the US to promote community- and municipal- owned broadband networks, the potential of community groups and researchers collaborating to open up dark fibre to local community and municipal networks, the role of open-source technology in building these networks, the importance of social science and other related expertise in studying and learning how these systems are being used (I would add, as opposed to the current trend I'm seeing of web designers and web activists declaring themselves 'usability experts') and the importance of building a cyberinfrastructure and virtual community from the ground up that serves the need of netizens first and foremost, and not top-down, sanitized, artificial “country clubs on the web”.

It was obviously very reassuring to hear something like this from the director of the NSF. Oftentimes I find it difficult to convey why I do what I do, and his talk helped me crystallize how to talk about it in a way that I hadn't thought of before. If you know me well enough you know that I have what some would call slightly radical views about the Internet and its future, but it's rather comforting to know that people like Arden are leading the organizations that can potentially do the most to promote and encourage “very good things” like open source, community-owned and distributed networks, and accessible knowledge transfer. L. Bement

After a small group of us left the party as it was winding down, I found myself exceedingly tired later that night, and nearly fell asleep at the table in this generic 'English' pub we went to near their hotels, “John Bull” Pub or something. I turned in early-ish because the lag had started to hit me.

The next day we had the second part of the panel sessions; you can see notes and photos from these on the WAYS site as well.

Lunch both days was incredibly well-catered - well, maybe with the exception of the lack of certain foods on day 2 – the panel I was in ran about 30 minutes into lunch for some reason, and by the time we got around to the buffet table there was none of the good stuff left.

The reception that evening was a repeat of the same one back in 2005, at the last WSF. It was on a beautiful boat that cruised up and down the Danube, though this time the cruise was considerably shorter and the host of the reception, the President of Hungary, didn't show this time (though he had been at the Forum itself). We got a table just for the WAYSers and I managed to snap some candid photos of most of the group.

After the cruise, a big group of us made our way to a bar recommended by David, who had spent lots of time here already. It was a pretty decent bar, minus the music and the 65-year-old men fondling teenage girls. To be fair, though, that was a recurring theme in the city, as well as other places in Eastern Europe. We did manage to have a great time in between informal WAYS meetings, which themselves were markedly concise and productive, and refreshingly bullshit-free (refreshingly not meant for WAYS, but for the manner in which I've seen these types of meetings elsewhere generally conducted). We got lots done, so to speak.

The final closing panel was to be held the morning of Saturday the 10th at the Hungarian Parliament, but I was far too wasted I had been to it before and while it's a must-see, I didn't real feel the need to be there for the closing ceremony. Instead, we had one more WAYS meeting in lieu of going there, and then Mande, Juan Pablo, Michael and I went to the Hungarian Wine Tasting Museum, after taking the vernicular up to the eloquent plateau at the top of the city.

I'll spare the details, but suffice it to say that we got more than our Forints worth of walking unaccompanied around an awesome old wine cellar and sampling various Hungarian wines at our leisure. I think we were there almost until closing time before we realized we had gone from “sampling” to “swigging” wine. A broken glass, far too much spilled wine, several new friends and a couple of purchases later, David showed up (much more sober than we were). We then embarked on the grand adventure of finding somewhere to eat, going nearly door-to-door in search of fine cuisine, like some sort of misguided, heavily intoxicated, rag-tag band of itinerant food snobs.

Not the most eloquent of men even at my best, we found that my slurred lying to the 'maitre d' about having reservations at several upscale restaurants didn't really cut it here... except the last time.

Yes, sir?
Uh, yes, we're five.
Oh I'm sorry sir, we're completely booked, it's impossible.
Oh no, reservations. Um, we have reservations. Party of Five, for... umm.... Gabor?
Uhh, one moment sir, let me see what I can do.
(He returns 2 minutes later)
Yes sir, it seems we have a table. Right this way.

In all likeliness, however, my sixth sense [or, more likely, a drunken combination of senses one through five] tells me that it was more my attitude of naive tourist insistence than my clever ruse that got us seats.

Live Hungarian folk music – and one terrible interpretation of a greek wedding song – four and half tipsy foreigners, a round of “what jokes do you know?” which I'd rather not think about again, and a unique combination of food choices (note: goose liver on a bed of apple ginger sauce tastes exactly the way it sounds) meant that we all had a swell time before walking back down the embankement and retiring for the night.

Sunday, Mande (again) had the great idea of taking us to one of the famous Hungarian Bathhouses, this one in a hotel – Geldert or something I think? - where we dipped in the thermals baths, I experienced the joys and horrors of a steam room (“Yeah guys, I'm gonna get out. It's not the heat or the humidity, it's just that I can't breathe and the intergenerational couples rubbing up against each other and me are kind of freaking me out”). It was something to experience, and... I've experienced it, voila.

After a light lunch we split up, and Mande and Juan Pablo left to catch their flights. I went off to buy a new suitcase because mine had popped a zipper after all the flights back and forth. Taking the subway to the mall and finding what I was looking for was an adventure, though maybe not quite an ordeal.

If you plan on visiting, know that the language is obviously an issue when asking for directions, but most people try admirably to help you out. Getting down the subway at first was a little disconcerting, since the subway line itself is pretty far underground. The escalator is very steep, and you're on it for a good minute or so at least – not recommended for claustrophobes like myself.

Three stops and several questions later, I was at the mall, which is your generic suburb overpriced multilevel shopping mall. I got my suitcase and made my way back to the hotel, then went to have a bite to eat and some drinks (and great – and wide-ranging – conversation) with Michael, before he had to be on his way.

Sometimes, all you need is a little Buda in your Pest to get you back on track.

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