The No-Complex Generation

It is commonly said (on the Internet) that the second most widely spoken language at Microsoft, after English, is Romanian. Even if this is just a fanciful e-myth, it’s certainly true that the corporation does a great deal of recruiting in Romania and, in 2007, established its Global Business Support Center in Timisoara and Bucharest. Once a supplier of computers to the Soviet bloc, Romania managed to leapfrog over the regional competition in the 1990s to develop a new reputation as an IT hub in Europe. Computer programming is nowadays a ticket to a well-paid job in Romania or a ticket out of the country altogether.

When I met Florentina Hristea in Bucharest in 1990, she was a computer programmer and fluent in English. She parlayed these skills into an academic position in Romania as an associate professor in the computer science department at the University of Bucharest where she teaches artificial intelligence. She has also been a Fulbright scholar at Princeton and a visiting professor in Toulouse. Although there is prestige attached to an academic post in Romania, it doesn’t come with much in the way of material compensation.

“The salary of an associate professor is a bad joke,” she told me when we met again after 23 years for lunch near University Square in Bucharest. “I always have to do research projects, other types of collaborations.” Those collaborations have brought her renown in the field of artificial intelligence and natural language processing. But renown doesn’t pay the rent, and she was considering giving up her apartment to moving in with her aging mother.

Her students, however, are looking at well-paid jobs in the private sector or overseas. “The younger generation is very different,” she said. “These kids, for them, the Ceausescu era is old history. They were born after him and they don’t attach great importance to him. Their parents are still obsessed by him — because he ruled over our lives. But for my students, he’s just like any other Communist leader. They don’t care about him. They were born in a free world. They know that their world is poorer than others. They are concerned with financial and economic issues, not political issues. They feel free. They say and think whatever they want. They have no complexes. They are very good at what they do. And when they go abroad and participate in competitions, they are not ashamed to say that they are Romanian. They are proud of it.”

In 1990, we talked a great deal about politics – and she even gave me a political tour of the sites of importance in downtown Bucharest during the revolution and its aftermath. Today, however, she doesn’t follow politics as closely.

“I’m quite disappointed by what has taken place in politics,” she told me. “And I’m really not interested any more because I’ve lost hope for my generation. For my students, it will be different. But it has taken much too long… I was never optimistic, not even at the beginning. After all, the country was ruined for 50 years, day by day. Normally you would need a 100 years to recover. If you destroy something systematically for 50 years, it’s logical that it will take longer to rebuild. So, I am disappointed but not surprised, because from a strictly logical point of view it should take this long. However, I’m disappointed enough to lose interest in all this. I’m just not interested in politics any longer.”

Nevertheless, we started off by talking about politics, specifically the face-off between Romania’s president and prime minister that took place in 2012.

 

Florentina Hristea

Florentina Hristea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The Interview

 

You were telling me your view of the so-called coup d’état in 2012 in which Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his Social Democratic party tried to engineer a vote to oust the more conservative President Traian Basescu from his office.  

 

I view this scientifically. Ponta and the Social Liberal Union had a majority in parliament. And they used it. That’s something that’s done in every country. Any party with a majority will take advantage of it. That’s just what they do. This was not done by the military. It was done by the Romanian parliament. So, it was not a coup d’état. That’s my view. We were all shocked, me included, because it took place very quickly. Something new happened every hour. I turned on the TV set because I wanted to see the weather. I went to a news channel just for the weather broadcast. They had headlines and breaking lines, showing us what was happening in parliament.

I was not very surprised. The day before I’d watched an interview with Crin Antonescu the co-president of the Social Liberal Union, on one of the channels. He was asked, “Do you have a plan to change things?”

He said, “We certainly do. The lawyers of our party have been working on this for months now.”

“When will it take place?”

He smiled and said either very soon or sooner than you think.

Antonescu more or less told us. Their lawyers and advisors had been working a long time. The big surprise was that it started two days after this interview. But then again I wasn’t surprised. The timing was very shocking. But they had planned everything. Maybe they hadn’t planned it very well because it didn’t succeed 100 percent [Basescu remained in office]. But it was being planned for months. They were using the majority that they had in the parliament. They had it legally. You might not like the way they used it. But you can’t deny their majority. You can say that you don’t like these guys, that they call themselves the Liberal Party but they’re not liberal enough. There are many things you can say. To win the vote, our president used all his connections and used some very false so-called evidence. On the TV, you can see the majority voting. You may not like what they are doing, you may not agree. But they are the majority and everything was happening through the parliament.

I don’t think this happens in any other nation, the way Romanians harm themselves. It’s quite unique. This is a very intelligent nation, overly gifted. Looking at my students in computer science and the questions that they ask, I realize that this is an overly gifted country. But it has a major problem in my view. It’s not at all united.

 

When you say that Romania is not united, do you mean politically?

 

People are still very divided politically. In other countries I can relax in the company of a friend who has a very different political opinion. We discuss it. But here, instead of discussing things over coffee, people become enemies because they have different views.

 

I was in Hungary before here. People are very divided there as well.

 

I have a Romanian friend who married a Hungarian. She goes there very often. Hungarians have financial and economic problems much greater than they expected at this point in their history. It’s hard for them to get used to that. I always regarded their political situation as more advanced, so I was surprised when she told me about the situation there.

You now, I love my country. I live here. But it’s like with your child. You love your child but you should be aware of your child’s problems. And I was surprised to hear from my friend that Hungary has such problems.

 

The economic situation here seems to have improved a little bit. In everyday life.

 

Not in academia. The salary of an associate professor is a bad joke. I always have to do research projects, other types of collaborations.

 

I talked to a former teacher in Constanta who said he had to do private tutoring to survive, and he didn’t want to do that.

 

I don’t do anything like that. I just do these research projects to make additional money. But I love the projects, because they’re related to my scientific field. It’s a hard way but a clever way to get by. I had a three-year project funded by what is the Romanian National Science Foundation. I haven’t found another such project. It’s very field-related. And there is a lot of competition all the time.

I’m getting ready to sell my apartment and move in with my mother. We have enough space in her apartment. But I wanted to have a space of my own. I waited a long time to get my apartment. These are two modest apartments. Pensions are very low. So, don’t ask me about the economic situation. I will tell you that in my category, 23 years ago, money had more value. The salary of an associate professor was enough you could survive on. But now, well, you have to sell something to survive. And if you have nothing to sell, you live in misery.

 

What surprises me is that you have what are two of the most highly valued skills in most countries — fluency in English and computer expertise. In most countries that would ensure that you would have no financial problems.

 

I have the same financial problems as many associate professors here, no matter what the field is. There’s nothing I can do with English except work for a private company. But it’s too late for that now. My PhD would be no good. It would only irritate the owner and the bosses. This is not the Western world where you are paid more for a PhD and you’re appreciated. No, they don’t need my PhD. My students can do that work just as well.

 

What was the project you were doing, the three-year project?

 

My field is natural language processing. The project was in human-computer communication. You input the text and natural language comes out. Obviously, all the tests are performed in English and then it’s adapted for other languages. But since you have to publish the results, it should be in English. You punch in questions in English, the software gives you an answer. These are two different processes. First of all, the software has to understand the question and this is natural language understanding. After understanding the question, the software will look in the databases. But the software has to understand the question to know where to look. It gets the information from those databases and provides an answer in correct, fluent English. This is the second process, called natural language generation.

 

It sounds like you would be perfect for Google. Does Google have an office here?

 

I don’t know.

 

That’s what they’re looking for.

 

It would be good for a research department, if they have one at Google. I stopped programing in 2000 after having programmed a lot. I couldn’t keep up with everything new that appears in the field, including the theory of the field. So, I’m the researcher who comes up with the algorithms and the theories for the project. Not everyone can do that. We come up with various theories and then we work with a programmer, someone who has to be a very skilled programmer and who also knows the theory.

Google probably has a research department, but not here in Romania. They work with Romanian programmers a lot. But that’s with programmers. But most don’t have the patience to understand the theories, the mathematics. They just give them formulas and they do the programming. They’re not interested in the theories. These are now two different jobs: the researcher who comes up with a solution, good or bad, and the person who does the programming, who implements it.

 

When we met in 1990, you weren’t involved in AI. You were just doing computer science.

 

After graduating, I worked for four years in a computing center of the industry where I was a programmer. The communist regime made you work for at least two years in industry after graduating. So, I was not allowed to be at the university as a young graduate. I was at the computing center for three years, waiting for the chance to work at the university. Finally, after four years, I was able to move there. When we met I was at the beginning of my career in academia. I had not specialized in anything. I was a young assistant. I had to do a lot of teaching. I had also started a PhD. After the PhD, after I got my first promotion, I started to have more freedom. Which is typical of a career in academia.

I had to wait for a professor to accept me as a new PhD student. The first one who did was a specialist in statistics. I started my PhD in statistics and by this point I was 30. In 1996, I got a PhD in mathematics and statistics. Then I chose a field where I could use statistics as a tool. I could have become a statistician, but I didn’t want to do that. I was a good programmer because I’d worked in the computing center. I wanted to use my PhD and my statistics in another field. Which turned out to be AI.

At around the same time, a German professor visited our department here. And he said, “Why don’t you do research into linguistics?” He invited me to work with him on a research project. I was stationed here but I participated in this project on human language technology and software. I worked with this specialized department at the University of Hamburg for three years, coming and going. I had access to the literature and I liked it. It was probably in my blood. Both of my parents were linguists. My role was basically as a computer scientist. But it was a very good combination of linguistics, statistics, computer science, and programming — very interdisciplinary. I became known for this work as I published papers. After that, the professor retired, and I didn’t work with him again. But I was lucky to have these partnerships at the beginning because it introduced me to a completely new field, which I liked. And I went to the United States to do this work as well, as a Fulbright Research Fellow at Princeton University.

 

How many people do this kind of work here? You mentioned that most of your students leave the country.

 

There’s a group at the Romanian Academy. There’s also a group of professors and PhD students in Iasi. That’s about all there is here in Romania. But nowadays, in a career in academia, you’re not comparing yourself to colleagues here in Romania. We compete internationally. And I have many students who have successfully entered the field — but they go abroad. It’s a great field to go abroad with. It’s growing, and it will always be needed.

I’m coming to the end of a long research project of four years that I started out doing alone. I continued it with the French of the University of Toulouse. The German publishing house Springer wrote to me and asked me to write a short material with this research for them, in a series they publish called Springer Briefs, which covers various fields. I could have written an entire book on the research, but they were just interested in the research in this form. It was published in September 2012. It turned out to be a very important publication. I was an invited professor, in France, in Toulouse, also with this theory. So, it’s brought me a lot of international attention, without having any contacts or connections, which is quite remarkable. The French found me on the Web and contacted me. They started talking about possible cooperation. They’re specialists in information retrieval, which Google is of course interested in. They have won international competitions. Their goal is to improve searches on the Web. Now, I’ve published everything that could be published on this particular problem. So, it’s the end.

And I’m ready to start something new, which is not easy after doing something like that. Now I’m reading what others have done in this area. And I have to think about something else. So, I was very busy with this. It started one year before my father’s death. Because he died in the middle of this project, I wasn’t really interested in doing anything else. Even the so-called coup d’état didn’t interest me as much as it probably should have. This project kept me busy after his death, along with the problems with my mother, who was not the same after my father died.

Before that, I was married for 13 years. We’ve stayed friends. If I know that I have a problem, a real one, I could turn to him. He really took my career seriously. Not everyone accepts this, especially in traditional Romania, where the wife is expected to cook, and I don’t know how to cook. I mean, who cares?

 

Of all the countries that I’ve visited, the mentality of people here has changed less than in the other places.

 

This is a very traditional society and it changes very slowly — not in a single lifetime. The younger generation is very different. These kids, for them, the Ceausescu era is old history. They were born after him and they don’t attach great importance to him. Their parents are still obsessed by him — because he ruled over our lives. But for my students, he’s just like any other Communist leader. They don’t care about him. They were born in a free world. They know that their world is poorer than others. They are concerned with financial and economic issues, not political issues. They feel free. They say and think whatever they want. They have no complexes. They are very good at what they do. And when they go abroad and participate in competitions, they are not ashamed to say that they are Romanian. They are proud of it. So, there’s a complete change.

 

Is that a change for you as well? Do you feel when you go abroad some residual embarrassment at being Romanian?

 

It’s very different for me. I’ve gone abroad a lot, both for my job and as a tourist. As a tourist, I felt awful when I showed a Romanian passport at the hotel because they didn’t know that I was an associate professor in academia and that my husband was a lawyer on vacation. They could have very well thought anything. I went to Switzerland once and they asked, “What are you doing here?” And I said that I was on vacation for two weeks, visiting a friend and traveling around the country. I stayed in nice hotels on my husband’s money. He couldn’t come because he was very busy here at his office. I told them I was a university teacher on vacation. They became very polite. I was surprised that they believed me. Romanian teachers don’t go to Geneva on vacation. Although that was exactly what I was doing. There were some bad moments when I was there. Not always. But still.

When I was in Princeton, everyone was extremely polite with me. They wouldn’t even call me by my first name. It was always “Dr.” They told me that many of their PhD students came from Romania and especially from my university. And by the way, they said, did you know that Romania is number two worldwide after India for programming?

 

Have you changed your perspective in any way in the last 23 years?

 

I don’t remember what I told you 23 years ago — I have no idea! When we’re talking about the changes, well, we are much more mature. And nowadays I’m much more involved in my professional career. I’m quite disappointed by what has taken place in politics. And I’m really not interested any more because I’ve lost hope for my generation. For my students, it will be different. But it has taken much too long…

 

Longer than you thought.

 

Longer than we all thought. I was never optimistic, not even at the beginning. After all, the country was ruined for 50 years, day by day. Normally you would need a 100 years to recover. If you destroy something systematically for 50 years, it’s logical that it will take longer to rebuild. So, I am disappointed but not surprised, because from a strictly logical point of view it should take this long. However, I’m disappointed enough to lose interest in all this. I’m just not interested in politics any longer. Because I will never get anything from it. I can more or less anticipate what will take place. I don’t like it, so I don’t spend too much time thinking about it.

 

Is this a common perspective among your friends? With your mother?

 

My mother is from a different generation. She wants to see a big change before she dies. The generations are completely disconnected. If you compare my mother’s generation with my students, they are not from the same society. I’m somewhere in between. The younger generation resembles their counterparts in the West. They are extremely intelligent, overly gifted many of them. However, I find them much more superficial than we were. They find out everything on the Web. They don’t read any longer.

 

They’re lazy.

 

And superficial. And their parents don’t devote the time to them. I had hours of discussion with my parents. They tried to provide me with a parallel education to the one offered by the Communists. They explained many things to me, and they were very careful as they did it. Today’s parents are much more concerned with family survival, how to get through the next day, the next month. Or they are rich and they are focused on making money. And the children are born knowing it all. They were born know-it-alls. It’s very hard to work with them. But I’m lucky. I teach AI. The rich kids are not attracted to that. The rich kids do easier topics. All kids want to make money right away, a lot of money. Their primary concern is to get a job with a company. They come to classes when they can, if they can. They expect big changes. On the other hand, they don’t have complexes. They are born free.

 

Did you feel that lack of freedom on a personal level during the Ceausescu period?

 

I generally avoided contact with the rules of that society. I stayed within my own little universe. The only time I bumped into the rules was when I wanted to go abroad. That was the only time. But this is all history for today’s generation.

 

Bucharest, May 28, 2013

 

Interview (1990)

 

Valentina and Teodor Hristea are academics, she a philologist and he an associate professor in Romanian language and literature. Their daughter Florentina teaches computer programming at the university and speaks English fluently. Over dinner at their apartment, Florentina gave me quite a different view of the Romanian situation, one supportive of the government and critical of the opposition.

Communism is dead in Romania, she told me: there is little likelihood of its returning. She supports the National Salvation Front because she would like to see if it will follow through on its program. She particularly likes the prime minister Petre Roman who had previously been a professor at the Polytechnic. Roman speaks six languages, had never been in politics before and, because his father was a Communist, could have been a big shot if he had wanted. His father was Jewish, fought in the Spanish Civil War where he met and married a Spanish woman, and moved back to Romania. The fact that Roman is half-Jewish comes up sometimes in veiled criticism though no one would admit that this is the reason they dislike him. Some people say that because of his father, “Communism is in his blood.”

Many of the members of the Group for Social Dialog, Florentina said, were part of the former nomenklatura. Now, they simply criticize the government even though they receive money from the government to undertake certain programs. Romania Libera, meanwhile, gets a lot of sympathy in the West by using the neo-communism card. It also gets a lot of money and training while journalists at other newspapers–for instance, Adevarul–don’t get anything. She doesn’t like its didactic tone: “if you’re intelligent, you have the same opinion as us.” She said: “I’m sick and tired of journalists teaching me what to think. Just give me the news and let me think about it myself. It’s like you’re a baby and they are giving you democracy lessons.”

Politics are everywhere, she said: “People have stopped working in order to talk politics.” She doesn’t believe the people in the various parties and that is why she hasn’t joined any of them. This is not unusual for many Romanians. The Liberal party disappointed many people since it never proved to be a credible opposition. As one of her friends said: “the National Salvation Front didn’t win the election, the opposition lost it.” There are over 90 parties, many of which are just small groups with a leader. After 45 years, Romanians are so excited about expressing their opinions that they are reluctant to keep their mouths closed long enough to hear the opinions of others.

Florentina was particularly upset with the way foreign journalists have been covering Romania. “Either they don’t want to understand or are not capable of understanding.” They have concentrated on sensationalism and that has distorted the coverage. She cited the example of the events of June 13-15, the culmination of a seven-week demonstration in University square. Foreign journalists wrote only about the miners’ violent intercession but they didn’t ask how and why the miners were there. Since she works at the university, she was able to watch the development of the demonstrations over the course of the seven weeks. Intellectuals and students, she said, were there only in the evening. The people who stayed there overnight were quite different: “American gangsters are babies compared to these dealers, hustlers and prostitutes.” She suspects that they were paid since they always seemed to have food, whiskey and cigarettes. A friend in the Peasant Party admitted to her that the party fed these die-hards “out of charity.”

The demonstration began, she said, after a Peasant Party meeting. Some of those who attended went home, some went to the University. The students, contrary to foreign reports, did not organize the demonstration: they came later. After the elections in May, the students and intellectuals stopped attending the demonstrations so the last two weeks were like the beginning: only permanent demonstrators. Her students stopped going to the square, saying that “we don’t like the results of the election but we have to respect it.” On June 12, the demonstrators sent a letter to the government asking it to resign. They gave the government 24 hours. No foreign journalists wrote about this letter, she said. At this point, the government decided to clear the demonstration with the help of the police. 80 per cent of Romanians, she said, were happy that the police interfered since the demonstration didn’t stand for anything any more, that it had deteriorated into simply black market activities. She was relieved that cars could now go through the square and she could go to work safely. She says that she agreed with the demonstrators at first but did not agree when they did not respect the vote. The demonstrators shouted “Jos Iliescu” and at the same time complained that there was no freedom in Romania.

On June 13, she decided to go to work as usual. The entrance was surrounded by police, unarmed. The demonstrators were gone. At 10 a.m., passers-by began to ridicule the police but the police didn’t respond. A 2 p.m., a big group began to throw stones and she was very scared. Finally, she decided to leave the university under a hail of stones and fortunately was not hurt. Later she watched on television the cars burning at the university. Then the TV news reported that they were getting attacked and the transmission was cut. One hour later, a message from Iliescu came on the screen calling for people to react. The police could not do anything, the army had interfered too late and Iliescu called on the population to protect the new democracy. He didn’t call specifically for the miners but everyone knew that it wouldn’t be the intellectuals on the streets putting things in order. Many workers came, not simply miners. They liked Iliescu and were afraid of a coup d’etat. “It’s not democratic, it’s not civilized. But we were relieved when we saw that message. We were so scared about what would happen. We wanted the army to interfere even though we don’t agree with these methods. Life in Romania is not normal.” Foreigners argue that the police should have dealt with the issue but she thinks that both the police and the army were reluctant to use too much force because of their ambiguous and oft-criticized role in the revolution.

Demonstrators had apparently gone to the TV station on the 13th demanding that the chief show a cassette and if he didn’t, they would throw him out the window. The Minister of Communications then cut the transmission in order to get the chief off the hook. The chief could then say, “Look, there’s no transmission, I can’t show anything.” Who were these demonstrators? She doesn’t know. Who organized them? She doesn’t know. They were shock troops for someone, but she doesn’t know for whom.

After the police arrested over 100 people, there were demonstrations demanding their release. She doesn’t think that this was fair since Romanian law declares that it is legal to hold people on such suspicion. The law may not be a good law, she admits: but it is a law. Too many Romanians think that all laws can be changed overnight.

[Today, people still gather at University square, talking in small groups, sitting around the fountain, buying chewing gum from black marketeers. On a nearby wall is written “Tiananmen Square II” and “This space free of neo-Communism.”]

The intellectuals have failed Romania at this critical time, she thinks. The revolution simply put intellectuals into a state of shock. Workers, who ordinarily look to intellectuals for guidance, are now disillusioned. Furthermore, workers are quite worried about losing their privileges. The two opposition candidates–Ratiu of the Peasants and Campeanu of the Liberals–promised capitalism in 2-3 years, Thatcher-style. Of course, no one voted for them: the workers knew that such a process would mean sacrifice borne especially by them. Furthermore, these two candidates lived abroad for so many years: Ratiu in England for 50 years and Campeanu in France for 17 years. Then, after the elections, both Ratiu and Campeanu went around the world telling people that the elections weren’t fair and the National Salvation Front was simply a group of neo-Communists. Iliescu meanwhile admitted that the next few years for Romania would be hard. His endpoint for the country was a social democracy like Sweden or Austria. This fact many people quote as proof that he is Communist.

Recent price increases for gas have made even NSF supporters angry. But the government has said that it will not change prices for food and electricity. Salaries meanwhile have been rising. There has been a moratorium accepted by the trade unions that wages will not go up for another 6 months. Some prices have fallen since the revolution, for instance electricity is three times less. Nevertheless, food is hard to get and the lines for meat are quite long. Many people simply buy on the black market to avoid the lines (and pay three times the price). Some stores turn down meat shipments because they simply don’t want the bother of lines and riots outside the doors.

Later in the week, we went to Palace Square (renamed Revolution Square but people don’t seem to have adapted to the new name yet). There, Florentina described the December revolution for me. On one side of the square is the former Central Committee building where Ceausescu gave his last speech on December 21. On the other side is the Royal Palace which, except for one wing devoted to the National Art Museum, has been closed for years. Facing the Central Committee building on the left is the infamous 5th district office of the Securitate and next to it the National Library. Opposite these buildings on the other side of the square are an apartment building and a building whose top floor housed the Securitate’s computer facilities. The Securitate building today is completely destroyed by fire as are their computer facilities. The National Library is also substantially damaged by gunfire and fire. The facade of the Royal Palace has also been damaged and many of the artworks in the art museum were affected as well. On December 22, the demonstrators successfully pushed through to Palace Square from University Square. At noon, the Ceausescus left by helicopter and from the steps of the Central Committee building, the revolutionaries announced that people should meet at 6 p.m. to decide on the future of the country. Until this point, there hadn’t been any violence in Bucharest. But at 6 p.m. when people had gathered, the shooting began. It had been clear that the Securitate had cooperated with the revolutionaries, otherwise the revolution would never have gotten that far. So who was shooting from the Securitate strongholds–the 5th district headquarters, the Securitate apartments in the apartment building, the computer facilities? Florentina suspects that it was this private army of Ceausescu: the foreigners (Libyans, North Koreans) and the group of orphans that Ceausescu raised from birth. Where are these “terrorists” now? Originally there were a couple of pictures of them released, but after that no comment. Florentina suspects that they were released and sent back to their countries: Romania doesn’t want to antagonize potential allies in the Middle East.

Again, she stressed that it wasn’t Communism that she worried about in Romania, but rather fascism. The extreme right in Romania, patterned after the Iron Guard of the 1930s and 1940s, might resurface. She quotes some of the sayings from the University demonstrations: “We would take death over Communism” and “we either win or we die.” [Actually, this latter quotation also comes from the December revolution: “We love you, Liberty! Either death, or victory!”] Also heard on the 13th was “Down with that Jew” referring to Roman.

 


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