Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gail Martin Answers

Gail Martin, Author of The Summoner (reviewed here) and The Blood King (might be reviewed here soon), is doing her "Days of the Dead" blog-tour, and has graciously acquiesced to write a guest post about her Big Idea (a concept I shamelessly stole from John Scalzi) on my blog. So without further ado:

How did the idea for your novels came to you? What was the inspiration?
I created the character of Tris Drayke back in 1981, sitting in one of my college classes (and obviously not paying attention).  I use the term “created” loosely, since my characters tend to stride on stage in my imagination fully formed and present themselves, demanding to know where their book is.  (Strange but true.)  So I had the character but not a story to go with him.  Jonmarc Vahanian showed up in the next year.  The other characters pretty much appeared as they were needed as the plot began to evolve, but others showed up independent of plot and refused to go away until I wrote them in.  Some minor characters showed up with such a strong presence that they literally stole the scenes they’re in—much to my surprise.
I imagine this sounds very strange to a non-writer (and maybe to some writers—it works differently for each of us), but I’ve always considered myself more a stenographer to my characters than a god-like plot architect.  The characters do pretty much write themselves in that when I want to know more about them, I create a mental picture of the character and ask my questions and get answers.  Then the plot springs from the personalities and actions of the characters.  It’s kind of like taking notes on the movie that plays on the inside of my eyelids. 
As for inspiration, the books do weave together several favorite themes.  I’ve liked ghost stories and haunted houses for as long as I can remember.  The same is true for stories about vampires and magic.  I’ve also had a life-long fascination with folklore from around the world as well as mythology.  I essentially wrote the story that I wanted to read so that I could get to read it!  And while none of the characters is literally “me,” there are very clear elements of me in all of my characters if you know me well enough to know where to look.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More Photos from Sunday

Lac de Moron.
Exilim EX-V8

When hiking, I usually have my long lens (the EF-S 55-250mm IS) on the SLR, while I use my small Exilim (whose image stabilisation does not work anymore, unfortunately) for wide-angle shots.

Canon EOS 300D, EF-S 55-250mm IS, f/5.0

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

T minus 2

That is right, a guest post is coming! Furthermore, it is not just a post by anybody, but by a real, honest-to-god published author. Stay tuned!

PhD Hiking Trip

On Sunday I went on the annual PhD hiking trip. We were quite lucky with the weather - it was a glorious autumn day, probably the last of the year, it has been raining since.

We went from Les Brenets alongside the lake, passing the rapids "Saut du Doubs" to "Lac de Moron", a rather unfortunately named artificial lake, at least if you speak English.

Taking photos when in big groups (we had about 60 participants) is always difficult - all those other morons taking photos get in the way, you can't
stop where you want as long as you like, so most of my photos were crap. But a couple of them panned out by coincidence.

Below: Lac des Brenets and the golden cock.

More to follow.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Misusing Benno

I've run out of shelf-space recently, so a trip to Ikea was due. Limited floorspace precluded the purchase of another Billy, so I bought two Benno CD-Towers instead. As you can see, they are just deep enough for normal-sized paperbacks.

Poor things, they'll probably never see a CD in their life.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Learning en passant

During your PhD, you often have to learn things that will not show up in your thesis. Your program of choice for data analysis, for example. So far I have managed to avoid delving into Origin, and squeeze by with the trifecta of Matlab, Mathematica and COMSOL. Or drawing engineering drawings. The CRPP has dedicated draughtsman, but often it is much quicker to draw a simple piece yourself. I am not up to snuff yet, in that my drawings are not norm-compliant, but they have become good enough that the people at the shop don't need to get back to me to ask for interpretation anymore. Here is a drawing I did yesterday morning, part of my next experiment, as soon as I can figure out my nasty resonance-problem.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I am experimenting with making coffee in a cafetière, or French press. It is insofar more involved than just using my small Italian espresso-cooker, as there is one more variable you can control. Instead of just coarseness of the grind and amount of coffee, you also have to decide on the steeping time. This clearly calls for experimentation, and results in a very jittery Boris.

Right now I am grinding the beans for 9 seconds in my blade grinder (an abomination as far as the cafetière is concerned, since it makes for an uneven grind). I add two heaped spoons of coffee, and let the water (just below boiling) steep for 5 minutes. Still not strong enough, though, not with the amount of milk I like to add. But now! Should I add more coffee? Increase the grind time for a better surface-to-volume ratio? Steep longer?

I'll find out during the next couple of days, if the caffeine overdose doesn't put me in an early grave. Although then I could rise with the fidgety dead on Halloween!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I shall eat your bones

Yea, and even unto the marrow I shall consume them. If you are a cow, that is. Mmmh, nothing better than some hot bone-marrow on dark bread. Except maybe brains.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Parchment Wallet

Back in may, I spontaneously decided to make my own wallet, out of a piece of A4 paper. I was curious how long it would last in daily use; the answer turns out to be: more than five months. To be sure, my wallet shows signs of use, and I head to reinforce a couple of edges with adhesive tape, but it is still holding together well. Nevertheless I made a new one: The awesome parchment wallet.

The idea came to me when I was thinking about different materials you can fold a wallet from. The internets suggest tyvec or similar composites, but then I got to thinking: What's wrong about good old fashioned dead animal skin? True, everybody and their dog has a leather wallet, but what about a parchment wallet? a google search for "parchment wallet" only turns up 156 hits, and most of those are wimpy marriage card parchment envelopes.

Thus I proudly present: the world's first manly parchment wallet. Look upon me, ye mighty, and despair!

Let's see how long it lasts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Not all the data I took in 2008 is corrupted (see also here), or rather, while the absolute values are wrong, the relative shape of my curves is still correct:

You can see the shape of the two breakdown curves is more or less the same, only with the ENI probe inserted into the circuit, the absolute peak to peak voltage is about on fourth of what it should be. This means that while I still have to redo all my experiments, the conclusions I have drawn from the curves are still valid. Phew.

Monday, October 13, 2008


So I am sitting here , freshly single, listening to Pink's "So What" and am wondering what kind of breakup is the worst one. Constructive thoughts, to be sure, but what can you do?

The trite answer is, of course, that the worst breakup is always the one happening to you, right now. But that's boring, so let's see if we can categorise (hey, scientist here, it's what we do) the ways two people can make each others live miserable.

  • The I-cannot-believe-you-did-that breakup

I put this first, because I think this may be the easiest one to get over, at least for the wronged party. In the I-cannot-believe-you-did-that breakup your ex cheated on you with your sibling, ate your canary, or destroyed your favourite CD. It is clear that you cannot bear to be with that asshole anymore, and screaming and violence might ensue until he or she is finally out of your sight. Then, the ritualistic destruction of property will begin - in short, your anger will help you somewhat over the pain of separation. On the other hand, you will have to deal with some self-loathing, but then do not all of lives confections bear the acrid sting of cyanide?

Ahem, moving on:

  • The one-sided-it's-not-you-it's-me breakup

That one is right awful, especially for the breakee, although it can be painful for the breaker as well. For the breakee (breakupee?) it is a bolt out of the blue sky. There you were, admiring the pink clouds in the purple sky through the rose glasses of love, when the aforementioned bolt hits you right between the eyes like a metapher carried too far. Why? What did you do wrong? How did you not see this coming?
The breaker (breakupper?) has no easy job either. For you it's clear that it is not working, the magic is gone, but your trice-damned-partner (what were you thinking?) is making puppy-dog-eyes at you, and swearing his undying love. Jeez, why is it always you that has to be the asshole? And where is that bloody bolt?

Alright, the breakees lot may be slightly harder, but then, it is always better to be the hammer.

  • The we-both-knew-it-was-coming-but-wanted-to-suffer-a-bit-longer breakup.

You know, there is something to be said for short and painful, especially when compared with drawn-out and excruciating. Anyway, you both were doing nothing but fighting and detesting each other. But for whatever reason, none of you had the guts to do something about it, so you festered like a broken arrowhead in the intestines of a Thracian cataphract (don't ask me where that came from). So when you do break up, it might actually come as a relief. Still, there was a reason you tried so long and so hard to stay together, and in the end you both suffered twice as much pain as you had to, and it was all for nothing.

  • The we-love-each-other-but-cannot-be-together breakup

This breakup does not suffer from or cause bad feelings. If there is anything that suffers besides you both, it's the breakup itself, and it suffers from an abundance of good feelings, which may be why it feels so awful.
You both love each other, but for whatever reason you cannot stay together. Maybe it is outside influences, and you had to discover painfully that love does indeed not "conquer all". Maybe both of you have quite different ideas of what you want to get out of the relationship, and it has been impossible to reconcile them. Anyway, the breakup will be long, tearful and hurtful, and you can't even hide behind anger. On the other hand, you don't have to hide behind anger, and perhaps, in a few years (decades) you can look back with fondness at the time you two had together. Then again, maybe you have just lost the love of your life. Bummer you.

So, you are asking while basking gleefully in the sacrastic sorrow seeping from my pen of pain, which one is the worst?

The one I am going through of course, right now.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sweet Hat

I've wanted to buy a fedora for the longest time, but given my horror of the despicable activity called shopping, I had to wait until the stars were right. Yesterday Pluto was finally in Virgo or something, so I ambled over to  Le Coup de Chapeau to acquire one.

After parting with far too much money for a piece of felt, I am now a proud owner of a midnight blue fedora:

Calm down ladies, there is enough for everyone.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Goodbye, data

Data, meet faulty Voltage-current probe. Voltage-current probe, meet data of 2008. Goodbye, both of you.

One of the biggest fears and anxieties of a scientist will always be the integrity of his data. We are using immensely complex instruments to measure stuff, so how do we know that those instruments are not lying to us? Via calibration and comparison - here is how that can fail miserably:

Measuring voltage and current is normally straigth-forward, but becomes less so if you leave the familiar pastures of direct current behind and venture into the dark and dangerous woods of very high frequency and voltage. A normal oscilloscope probe will then not do anymore - it's maximum voltage derates quite quickly with rising frequency - So much so that I am measuring  my measly 2kV with a 25kV probe, which is only just capable of doing that.
Enter the evil, evil ENI low-impedance voltage-current probe. I installed it in the beginning of this year, and assiduously compared it's measurement with the 'scope. They agreed just fine, so I went ahead and used the thing, since it comes with a PC interface and logging software. Still, from time to time I compared it's measurements with the 'scope, just to be sure.

Today I found out that the evil, evil ENI low-impedance voltage-current probe isn't. Low-impedance that is. In fact, depending on the voltage it can act as a 1:4 to 1:20 voltage divider - meaning that all I have measured this year is crap. And I never discovered that, because I never thought of taking the thing physically out of the circuit - I only compared it's measurements with the 'scope, which of course showed the same voltage, since the probe was still there, happily acting as a divider.

I will have to redo all my measurements of this year. The most depressing thing? It will probably only take two to three weeks.

Some weeks it would be better just to stay in bed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

These are so awesome

Do want.
The distinguished nobleman is always ready to shoot his vis-à-vis over a disputed piece of meat, or an unwise comment about his lady. Alternatively, accidentally triggered these cutlery-pistols provide endless amusement for the dinner party!

Weapons-collection in Chateau Grandson, Switzerland.

Monday, October 6, 2008



You can't live with them, but when you try to kill them they run away screaming and then you have to chase them and then somebody grabs onto your shoulder and then you have to say: "I know this seems bad officer, what with the knife in the hand and my sobbing girlfriend but this isn't what it looks like" and then they don't believe you and you have to postpone the whole thing until after the court date and then you get to thinking somehow I still love her, and anyway, what would I do with the body and also I would be all alone and I already miss her but she made me so goddamn mad and only then I noticed so many things that have been bugging me for years so it came all out while she was gone and now I don't know what to do, yet I think about her all the time and maybe she could change only they say people don't change but she said she would and I would so love to have her in my arms right now.