In the Referendum, please don’t be tempted to kick Cameron in the balls.

The referendum is tomorrow and the country seems to be evenly divided. I’ve read a lot of stuff for In and a lot of stuff for Out and to be honest, I’m still not sure. My postal vote has already gone in (hope it gets there in time) and I voted Remain.

Why? I wasn’t very impressed with the Out crew, despite my love for Boris. The great and good seem to be solidly for Remain – which immediately made me want to vote Out. The minute I thought I’d vote Out, Farrage would come up with something so outrageously racist that I’d go back to Remain.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

So now we need the Wisdom of Crowds. That’s the strange fact that a group of people will often come up with a better answer to a problem than any lone genius. The typical example of this is at those Summer Fayre competitions to guess the weight of the piglet in ounces/guess the number of marbles in the jar. It’s a fact that if you go late, add up all the numbers suggested so far, divide it by the number of people who tried, you will probably come up with the right answer. It’s strange, it’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

It’s why democracy works.

It’s why every vote is important, no matter which way you vote. The more votes there are, the closer to the right answer the result will be. I don’t mean “right answer” as in “the one I agree with.” I mean “right answer” in the sense of what is best for the country – it could be In, it could be Out, I’m honestly not sure.

So first, make sure you vote.

Secondly, try to resist the temptation to give David Cameron a good kick in the balls – which would be an Out vote. I know, I know, you see his round fatuous face, hear his oily “sincere” voice and toffy tones and you instantly want to machine gun him. Seriously, don’t give in to this.

The Wisdom of Crowds only works if everyone is honestly trying to get the right answer – not being distracted by the alluring prospect of watching Cameron spitting balls and shitting teeth.

So go to it, British Crowd. Let’s see what you got!

What is Quality Assurance in computer games?

Quality Assurance in computer games? You what? My adorable daughter, who only five minutes ago was insisting that pink was the only colour she was willing to wear, that Hero Quest 2 was the best computer game ever (though her hands were too little to kill orcs) and that we had to have a dog, has now suddenly become a very cool young woman who no longer wears pink, plays roller derby (London Rockin’ Rollers, since you ask) and works in the computer games industry. She still wants a dog, but is being mature about it because she doesn’t really have the time or space for one.

People often ask me what she does. I tell them QA – quality assurance. They say (usually, because they too are digital immigrants) what’s that? I say… er… Sometimes I try to blind them with bs, but that doesn’t usually work.

This, in her own words, is what she does.


Alex Perry:

“So recently a bunch of people have asked me how to get into QA because it sounds like “such a laugh”. While I love my job and would absolutely encourage people (especially ladies, yo! More ladies in games plz) to get into testing as a career, I would also like to explain to those outside of game development why we can be slightly less than responsive when someone says “wow! Playing playstation all day must be the cushiest job ever!”

Sometimes it’s straightforward and you find a bug that’s easy to explain & pinpoint. Or a designer comes and asks you to check if their latest update is working as intended. Or you suggest something could be done better because you play it the most so you know it’s kinda awkward. Or you run through your standard list of checks and something has clearly broken since yesterday so you track down exactly when it broke.

But sometimes…

You know when someone is compulsively superstitious? Or a conspiracy theorist who sees connections EVERYWHERE and it was THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT from that time someone SNEEZED in NEPAL and now 9/11 was an inside job because LIZARD PEOPLE?

Imagine being that person, except *a lot of the time you’re right*.

What I’m trying to say, prospective future testers, is that when a QA job spec says “excellent attention to detail” or “good memory” that is because sometimes you will have to write bug reports that are the game-dev equivalent of “to see this utter fuckery you must first spin around 6x anticlockwise, recite the declaration of independence, go make a cup of tea and punch yourself in the face. It will then occur about 40% of the time. And for reference it seems a lot like a similar wackiness that happened about 2 months ago to someone else on the QA team which is potentially completely unconnected but READ BETWEEN THE LINES, MAN. Also plz don’t ignore because when it *does* happen it literally rips apart the fabric of reality kthxbi.”

This is why we are a bit on edge a lot of the time.”

I also laughed out loud with that final paragraph. God, she’s talented.



The Hungarian Language Test

OK, so I’m trying to learn Hungarian at the moment, and may I say, it’s bloody hard. There are various reasons for this and one of them is that Magyar is very definitely not in the huge Indo-European language family. Pretty much all the other languages of Europe are in that family, with the exception of Basque and Finnish – and Hungarian. Its family is Finno-Ugric which means that there are some tribes around Lake Uigher in Siberia and the Finns who speak something similar, though not very.

The Hungarians are quite proud of this, of course, and have an unfortunate tendency to laugh if you tell them you’re trying to learn it. They then shake their heads and say “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” which means that Hungarian is very heavy, meaning difficult. Thank you, I know.

But this uniqueness means that Hungarian is perfect for a little test I am going to recommend to all language theorists.

If you’re talking about the original mother tongue, the ancestor to all living and dead human languages – yes, New Scientist 6 February2016 “The Eloquent Ape”, I’m looking at you – then you need a quick and easy test to make sure you’re not talking nonsense. Hungarian is a quick and easy test.

So, let’s say you’re searching for common sounds and similar-sounding words in languages all over the world. You find common sounds in all the languages you know like German and French and maybe even Sanskrit, and there it is. You proudly announce that this particular sound or word is universal, across all human languages and therefore part of the original ur-language.

You’re just being provincial. You haven’t ventured out of the comfortable branches of the Indo-European language group. That means you’re leaving out all sorts of languages like Mandarin or Qechua. But it’s hard to learn non-Indo-European languages and you need that test for non-Indo-European languages so you don’t waste time. Ta da! Hungarian is perfect. It’s indisputably spoken by humans and most of its words are very different. If you find your favourite candidate in Hungarian – well, maybe you’ve really found a proto-word. If you don’t, maybe you haven’t. Plus there are Hungarians everywhere and the educated ones seem to speak three or four languages. Every language lab needs at least one Hungarian, if only so there’ll be someone there who’s rock-solid on transitive and intransitive verbs (don’t ask).

There’s this researcher called Meritt Ruhlen at Stanford University, California, who contends that sounds like tik, tok, dik and tak mean “toe” in lots of languages and so must be from the ur-language.

Hungarian? The word for finger is “ujj” (ooee) and toes are “labujj” or leg-fingers. Ujj. Not very like toe, is it? You could argue even the concept of toe is sort of weak.

Numbers? Sure, in most Indo-European languages they all sound a bit similar up to ten. In Hungarian they go “egy, kettő, harom, négy, öt, hat, hét, nyolc, kilenc, tíz”. OK, so ten is similar. Oh and in Japan they apparently have different counting systems for people, long thin things and round things. So which one do you choose?

Ruhlen says social communication words like “who, what and where” and “he, she, it” are thought to be ur-words too.

Guess what you use for “he, she or it” in Hungarian? “Ő” That’s right. Just the one. “Ő” means “he,” “she” and “it”.

And that old favourite, Mama? Contentious. In Hungarian the word for mother is “anyu” – no “m”.

So Hungarian is a very special language, simple in some ways, fiendishly difficult in others. It’s quite young, having arrived in Europe with the fierce Magyar raiders only in the 9th century AD. Unlike Indo-European which reaches back to Persian, Hittite and Saskrit. Hungarian has an ancestry that’s lost in the roiling chaos of the nomad tribes on the eastern steppes. Also it got tidied up in the 19th century.

So if you’re looking for putative ur-words in Hungarian, and they’re totally different, maybe they’re not ur-words. Maybe you’re wasting your time looking for an ur-language before the Tower of Babel?

Personally I don’t think there was any such thing. Languages spoken by so-called primitive tribesmen aren’t simple, they’re complicated, even if they lack numbers after 5 or the idea of left and right. Simple is what you get when two languages like Anglo-Saxon and Old French crash into each other on an off-shore island and rub all the case-endings off (a sort of linguistic mating called a Creole which is what English is).

I think that the tribes that walked out of Africa all started with complicated languages of their own that had been evolving and developing since before we were human. The amazing social technology of language has continued to evolve and encourage sex between its enormous number of varieties right down to the present.

And when we get into space, languages will continue to flower and seed and change. Possibly something like a lingua franca will evolve from English or Spanish or Chinese but I bet that every habitat, every country on every planet will have its own complicated and irregular language. It’s a wonderful thought.

Climate Change March, Budapest, 29 November 2015

Well I went on the Climate Change March in Budapest.

I liked:

The friendly informal atmosphere, with everyone walking along and nobody trying to get in front of anyone else. There were leaders, mostly young students and the traditional mysterious Frenchman (Sartre? Camus?) but they weren’t too full of themselves. They pushed the sound system along on a bike and tried valiantly to get some chants started (but see below).

The organisation. At first I was worried we might be outnumbered by the cops, but in the end there was quite a respectable number of us, mostly youngsters and expats, with a few old hippies and punks (like me). I get a real thrill when they hold up the traffic for us as we walk past. Sorry, drivers, you must hate us… But it’s great!

I loved the samba drums – we could have done with more of them but the ones we had were great. I must get into samba drumming, it’s wonderful.

A beautiful final image – we were asked to pick up and carry autumn leaves and then at the end of the march, drop them in the Danube to symbolise the letters they’ve sent to the government (leaf and letter are the same word in Hungarian). Watching them fluttering down to land on the surface of the river was strangely satisfying, like playing Poohsticks.

I didn’t like:

The arguments I had with friends before the march – all saying, oh it’s not worth it, we’re doomed but not till I’m dead, what’s the point, one person can’t do anything, I’m sick of recycling, but I like eating meat… etc etc. I will get into the Competitive Austerity problem another time, but this really annoys me. The only thing that excuses you from a climate change march is having kids – and there were families with kids there. It’s important. Until we have sorted out the climate change problem, nothing else matters because climate change will KILL US ALL if we carry on ignoring it.

The speeches. Part of the problem was that they were mainly in Hungarian, valiantly translated into English as they went along. Now I’ve been here for two years, nearly, and even allowing 6 months off for having a stroke, I still don’t understand Hungarian very well. I can cope with a normal conversation, usually, but sooner or later the sentences will lengthen, the words will acquire a forest of endings and I will completely lose track. This despite a lot of work, may I say, so it depresses me. So bear that in mind when I say that I found the speeches too long and too complex, even when translated into English. Even worse were the points from an interminable pompous letter they had sent to the government. Honestly, I even felt sorry for Viktor Orban, though I’m sure he didn’t read it.

You need three points only, not ten. You need short punchy sentences. Like this. You need a poet’s ear for what people will actually hear.

When you’re shouting slogans, they need to be short and rhythmical, not long and well… lame. That’s why none of them really got going. Find a poet. There are lots of poets in Hungary, or there were. Chuck a rock into a kavezo and you’ll probably hit two. Even I can tell Hungarian poetry is wonderful, so I know you can do better.

See you next year!

The Mum, the Phone and the Baby

She was a nice-looking woman, with a loving smile for her toddler as they sat down in Miskolc station waiting room. He was clutching some pastry and sat next to her philosophically munching on it, with his little legs kicking high above the floor.

And then she took out her phone. Her toddler looked at it and his face sort of set. It was a patient weary look, but also somehow very lonely. He sat beside her, eating his pastry and dropping crumbs while she went on Facebook, texted her friends and played one of those addictive phone games, maybe Farm Story 2 which a friend of mine loves.

The minutes passed and all the mum’s focus was on the phone. She noticed when the toddler started scattering lumps of pastry everywhere, told him off gently, mopped up the worst of the crumbs and went to the bin with the toddler to throw out the remains.

Then she went back to the bench and focussed on her phone again. The toddler looked at her, looked at me. I smiled at him but he didn’t smile back, probably because I was a stranger. He looked at his mum again. Then he struggled his little fat body onto the bench face down, and started rocking to and fro on his tummy, rubbing himself on the bench.

We were up to 20 minutes now and his mum was still playing her game, hadn’t said a word to him. My heart bled for the little boy. She didn’t notice her baby comforting himself in the best way he could.

He stopped, tried to go to sleep but the bench was too hard. I really wanted to shout at the woman, tell her to pay attention to her baby, not her bloody phone, but I didn’t know how to express it in Hungarian pungently enough. Also in a long and loud career of tactlessness, I have eventually learned that people build walls of defense and pay no attention to what you say.

At last, after half an hour, the mum noticed the time and at last put her phone away. She put his little coat on and I used my useful position as a “néni” in Hungary – it translates as Auntie but basically means any woman over forty can talk to a mum about her baby.

I smiled and asked how old he was. “Two years old,” she said. “He’s very well-behaved.” I said and she smiled and picked up the toddler, gave him a kiss and rushed off to her train with him in her arms.

She was not a bad mum, in fact, I think that without her phone she would have been doing what I did when my kids were that age, talking to him, singing, playing games, going to look at engines – anything to keep the little bugger quiet, in fact. And considering how easily I get addicted to Facebook and games, I wouldn’t claim I would be any better than her now.

But oh it made me sad to see the little boy comforting himself all alone, next to his mum on the bench in Miskolc railway station waiting room.

Walking to the Other Travelodge

We knew we were taking a hideous risk when we went to D 23 – the Disney fan convention in the Anaheim Convention centre. The risk was not hiring a car. My logic was that Bill, my son, and I were only going to be there for three days, we were only going to the Anaheim convention centre and we had no intention of going anywhere else.
So some time in April, I got a friend to book a room at the Travelodge which was nearest the convention centre, a mere ten minutes walk away. It was confirmed etc yadda yadda.
We arrived off the plane, went to the convention centre to get our passes and then toddled along with our trundle suitcases to the Travelodge 10 minutes walk away. It wasn’t what I’d call a pleasant walk, since it was along Harbor Boulevard which is enormous and full of ferocious cars, but hey, it was only ten minutes.
I can tell you I felt pretty smug as we rolled into reception to get booked in.
They didn’t have our reservations and they were fully booked. Wearily, the plump girl at the desk rang the Other Travelodge at Ball Road, which I had never heard of. Oh, fancy that. The Other Travelodge had our reservations, in the name of Sinney, but never mind.I had specified one Travelodge, I got a different one.
Oh it’s only half an hour’s walk away,said the weary plump girl. So we walked a bit and then took a taxi.
The taxi went north on Harbor Boulevard, left on Ball Road, crossed a gigantic interstate by motorway bridge twice, and there was the Other Travelodge, tucked in next to a gas station and two random railway cars which looked like they had been some kind of dwelling but were now abandoned.
Now the Other Travelodge was perfectly adequate. The room was like a million other Travelodge rooms, the beds were clean, there was even a pool. But it was a long weary schlep from there to the D23 Convention centre. It was also a long ugly schlep, huge ugly roads stinking of petrol with inconvenient crossings. The crossings were a whole other kind of ugly. They basically seem to be designed to make mere pedestrians feel like insects as they scurry across the road under the psychological lash of the crossing lights. They play like this: two crossing signals. One a white light of a person, walking. The other a handshape in red. The white person lasts 4 seconds. The red hand gives you 30 seconds of countdown before the traffic will be permitted to crush you again. You can tell they want to, as well,as they vroom and honk you.
You really know you’re at the bottom of the social pile as a shameful pedestrian. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you even have a car? Are you poor? Don’t you even have a motorbike? Just two feet? What are you, Mexican or something?
Nearly three miles of gigantic roads, impatient cars, macho trucks and constantly scuttling across inconveniently placed crossing places every morning for three days is enough to understand why Americans would rather give up their house than their car and why so many of them are consequently living in them. Also why they’re so fat, so many of them wearily hauling vast amounts of blubber around with them. They don’t walk because it’s such a nasty and dangerous thing to do. They drive everywhere, including the gym, because there’s no pavement between them and it and they’d die.
Plenty of people have remarked on this. We got our Other Travelodge room probably because of bait and switch – they bait with a cheaper room (not cheap, trust me, not in Anaheim in the summer) and a convenient walk to the convention centre or Disneyland and then switch for a different room much further away on the assumption you’ll have a car and won’t care. They bet you’ll moan and complain but you’ll take it because there isn’t anywhere else – and you do.
Other Travelodge wasn’t all bad. At least we were getting some healthful(ish) exercise walking three miles every morning and night, unlike the human hippos around us.
And we were really close to the Disneyland firework display so we could enjoy it every night at a quarter to ten.

Why I love Hungary.

I’ve now been in Hungary for 18 months – and I love it. Here are a few reasons why.

Men offer to carry my bag for me. I’m not Scandinavian so I don’t tell them off. I just give them my backpack and laugh as they stagger.

They have palinka.

Women say nice things about your clothes and hairstyle, shoes etc – perfectly genuinely. This is great because women are far more likely to notice those things anyway.

They kiss on two cheeks and the men do too, but in a properly distant way.

They have wonderful cakes. No, really, they do. Old fashioned cake shops are a little bit heavy, modern ones are heavenly (Central Kavezo).

Everywhere you go, even in the ciggy shop in a little village near Miskolc, they have excellent coffee.

They have an absolutely wonderful public transport system in Budapest (BKK) and a berlet (monthly pass) which you can use everywhere, even the Danube boats, for about 25 quid.

The trains have been known to run on time away from Budapest too.

They have Tokaji.

All the children I have met have wonderful manners.

People are generally, habitually polite. They say “koszonom” (thank you), “szivesen” (you’re welcome), “bocsanat” (excuse me), a lot. They say “Jo etvagyot” (Bon appetit – there IS no English translation) whenever they see you eating, even if it’s just a Twix.

They have four different ways of saying “you” both singular and plural: friendly, formal, friendly-formal and courteous. So eight. I’m still disentangling how this works and despite experience with French, I haven’t got the hang of it yet.

When two adults decide to stop addressing each other in the formal mode and use the “te” form they entwine their arms and drink palinka.

They do have dumb politicians who put up posters telling immigrants to go home (in very complicated official Hungarian). But they also have civil rights groups who put up posters in exactly the same style and colour, except these say in English: “We’re sorry about our prime minister.”

They are very affectionate and family-loving.

They are also capable of acting with amazing courage – as in 1956 when they took on the old Soviet Union and also in 1989 when they did it again… And won. Theirs was the honour of the first major breach in the Iron Curtain.

Boy, do Hungarians know how to party.

They genuinely love guests and although they’ve stopped taking the wheels off your coach so you’ll stay longer, if you can walk after a proper Hungarian dinner you’re… well, you’re a freak.

They are extremely good at the fighting sports like fencing, taekwondo and judo. However I have never felt the least bit threatened anywhere in Hungary.

They are very musical and have no snobbery about classical concerts only being for old rich people.

Their countryside is beautiful and so is Budapest.

Slouchy sullen young men with piercings in every pierceable bit of their face, get up immediately for old ladies on trams and offer them their seat.

They also do handicrafts at parties – very well. This is surprisingly fun.

They have a national health service which has similar problems to ours but worked very well when I had to use it.

They are brutally honest about themselves and will be brutally honest with you if you show you won’t be offended.


Why I don’t like Hungary.

The food is a bit heavy and can be a bit salty for an English wuss.

The children speak much better Hungarian than I do.

They have a special official government way of writing that is totally opaque, even to a lot of Hungarians. However the actual bureaucrats are often quite nice.

People in Budapest, when you ask them anything in Hungarian, immediately respond with a flood of excellent English which is a tad depressing when you’re trying to learn the language and have been told that your accent is really good.

Don’t call me Pat!

There are two kinds of people in the world.

There are people who, when you meet them, ask your name, listen to what you say and perhaps ask, “What do you like to be called?” Then you can tell them that you answer to Trish or Trisha, or Shitfer as in Shitferbrains or Moonflower Dancing Unicorn or whatever. And they call you what you prefer to be called and you ask them the same question and it’s all lovely.

And then there are the other people.

These people hear you say “Patricia” and then they arbitrarily decide to call you something different, like Pat. I don’t know why they do this, but they do. They don’t ask, they assume they know what your nickname is and they just say something like “Well Pat, what a lovely day it is…”

And I am left with a quandary. Because I hate being called Pat and I always have, ever since the day at school when the Religious teacher (are you there, Miss Coleman) said, “You don’t mind being called Pat, do you?” and at 11 I was too wet and shy to say, “Yes, I mind.”

Not that it would have done a lot of good because if you say to a person who has just arbitrarily renamed you something different, they get very shirty about it. They’re usually insulted, in fact.

Again, I don’t understand this but it’s true. They act as if you’d just spat in their face. “Oh,” they say, in shocked surprise, “Ok, sorry,” And they say it in that huffy way that you know means you will to them forever be a stuck up bitch and they’ll tell everybody else how rude you were to them.

If they’re completely clueless they’ll say, “Oh, don’t you like Pat then?”

If I say, “no, I don’t,” they’ll roll their eyes at this fussy irrationality. If I explain about Miss Coleman and all, sometimes they laugh and even say sorry. Then they continue to call me Pat. Next time they meet me, they’ll call me Pat. It doesn’t matter how many times I beseech them to call me Trisha, I’m forever Pat to them.

You can’t win this game. If you don’t protest, you’re stuck with a name that you hate because to you it denotes a tennis-playing redhead  with a quacking voice like a duck (long story). If you do protest, some kind of weird lock happens to their memory and you still get stuck with a name that you hate because etc.

Sometimes they get so indignant because they’re calling you Pat on the phone and you’re trying to explain you don’t like being called Pat, that they put the phone down on you for the wicked insult of you not liking the name they’ve randomly chosen for you without your permission. And then they sulk.

I call them Random Renamers. If I can, once I’ve found out what they like to be called, I call them something else. You know, like theý’ve just done to me. Sometimes this works. But not often.

On being a slob (4)

(I wrote three other blogs on this subject back in August 2011. If I coould make the link thingy work, you could read them here, here and here.)

I’ve just spent two hours cleaning my bedroom here in Hungary because it’s been six months since I did it and really, it was time. The dust bunnies under the bed, which I use for keeping things on and meditating, were becoming dust dinosaurs and looking worryingly lively. There was a lot of bicarbonate of soda under the desk, remembering the happy day when both the cats peed in the same place, under the desk, while staring straight at me. Yes, there’s now a nice litter tray there now which they have both disdained to use.

I have to do my desk tomorrow because I never tidy for more than two hours because I get too bad-tempered and bored. My back hurts from using the weird centralised hoover because I couldn’t find the attachment for doing the floor until I’d finished.

But at least it wasn’t an entire house. It’s just a room, where I sleep on a little camping mattress on the floor because my back insists on the hardest surface possible. And that’s marvellous because I’ve cleaned entire houses and if you think I’m crabby now, you don’t know what crabby is.

I know people who love tidying and live in tidy clean houses that make me feel very very nervous. I know it’s only a matter of time before I do something unforgivably slobbish. My sister in law is like this and I really admire her beautiful tidy house. Years ago I did a seriously awful thing (left behind an item of feminine hygiene balanced on the cistern because it was the middle of the night and I couldn’t find a bin and… Oh god. I’m still horribly embarrassed by this) and it took years before I could even visit them again. So you see I’m right to be worried in a tidy house.

My landlady is one of those unfortunate people who like a tidy house but don’t like tidying which I think is the worst of all worlds. At least as the mess and the dust bunnies build up, it doesn’t make me feel bad and upset, I really don’t notice it. She feels happy when it’s tidy and clean, and unhappy when it’s untidy – which is sad because she has a large house full of clutter so it’s much more often untidy than tidy.

Intellectually I know that tidy is better than untidy and clean is better still. But there’s a large part of me that can almost always find something less boring to do. So once every six months or so, I clean and tidy right down the the surfaces.

The rest of the time I’m a slob.