Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Monday, August 31, 2009

High and low

This weekends trip:

The biggest natural underground lake in Europe:

at Saint Léonard, near Sion, Switzerland. (Click the link on the left, and you might see the first picture I uploaded to Wikipedia, which is the one you can also see above. I feel all virtuous and public-spirited now!) Of course I didn't take my fast 28mm/1.8 lens with me, so I had to crank up the ISO like crazy. That's the problem with having multiple lenses: You never have the one you want on your camera!

The reason I did not take the 28mm was that we originally wanted to visit the Grande Dixence,  the worlds second tallest barrage sits:

 Doesn't look like much, eh? But that's only because you are lacking a frame of reference. Here is a view from the top:

It's 227 meters high - the little pale-green box at the top is a (very ugly) eight-story hotel. The view at the top was awesome, but unfortunately my friend M's knee gave out, so we couldn't hike to the glaciers nearby. Hence the subterran lake, and my anger for not bringing my fast lens...

Friday, August 28, 2009

I hate you, Apple

Not that this is any news for the internet (see here, here and here, for example), but the build-quality of the stock iPhone earbuds is not the best. Point in case: mine after not even a year of not-too heavy use (i.e. half an hour twice a day, on my bike-ride to and from the EPFL).

Why, Apple, why? I already shelled out oodles of money for your frankly excellent phone, do you really have to gouge me some more?
What's that? You do?

Thursday, August 27, 2009


It's hot, too hot. So take this photo of the refilling of our huge liquid nitrogen tank to heart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Game of Go

Recently I have discouvered Go. I've been vaguely interested in the game for years, but had neither the opportunity to play, nor was my interest so strong that I actively joined a Go-club. But then my friend, the mad roboticist A (not to be confused with my other friends A&A, who are also mad, but in a quite different way) happened to mention that he was interested in playing Go as well.

A couple of weeks later, and now we have our weekly game of Go. I am sure we still play quite badly, but I've bought two strategy guides in the vague hope of improving my game.

It is funny that I like Go that much - I've never been able to warm up to chess that much. But the simplicity of the rules and the emergent complexity of the gameplay of Go really appeal to me. Now I am the proud owner of two boards (one for home, one for the EPFL), and I've also downloaded iGo for my iPhone so I can counteract A's unfair advantage, for I am sure he regularily plays his robots.

The photos, incidentally, show Go as it was meant to be played: By the flickering light of a petroleum lamp, with a nice single malt. (I know: ice in a single malt you ask, shuddering? But it was hot, and the single malt was not that nice.) Photos taken with my most excellent new Canon 500D, with the Canon EF 28 mm f/1.8 USM lens.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Car repair

My general technical knowledge pertaining cars is awful. Awful, I tell you. I am able to check oil and change tyres, that's about it. At the most, I am able to replace the battery, after letting the old one die because of neglect. This bugs me, because a car is not that complicated when compared, for example, to a PC. And if my PC dies, I usually don't rest until I drag it back into live, kicking and screaming and wielding a soldering iron (me that is, not the PC).

But the car? Case in point: Three weeks ago I visited my friends A&A (now extended to A&A&M&I - twins) in the French Jura. My car had already  shown some intermittend reluctance to accelerate when I came back from the training camp, and I was planning to have it checked out Real Soon (tm).

Of course, right before we wanted to leave on what promised to be an excellent walk, the following conversation happened:

Car: Cough.
Boris: What?
Car: Cough. Hrmph-cough.
Boris: Oh no you don't.
Car: Hrmph. Cough cough. Argl cough.
Boris: Don't you @#%@ dare...
Car: Hrrrrmpf. Argl. Arglgargl. Cough cough cough cough.

Needles to say, my car won that argument. So A&A&M&I  left with a more compliant vehicle, while I popped the hood of my Colt, and - well. I checked that no cable had come loose. Then I called the towing service.

The guy knew what he was about, and also had a quick conversation with my car:

Mechanic: So, let's start you up.
Car: Argl arglargl cough argl.
Mechanic: What's that you are saying? (pushes accelerator).
Car: arglarglarglarglargl. Cough.

Clearly, my car speaks much better French than I do (or maybe a local dialect of the Jura?), because  he understood without problems: my car was only running on three cylinders. He quickly demonstrated that to me (and this is how you can find out for yourself) by pulling out and replacing the high-voltage cables that go to the spark-plugs one after the other.  The motor's coughing got much worse with three of them, but stayed the same with cylinder four: we had found our culprit. In fact, the cylinder was thankfully blameless - it was the high-voltage cable itself that was broken.

Unfortunately there didn't seem to be a cable like that to be had in the Jura, even though I tried three different mechanics. So the friendly guy replaced the broken cable with one that was much too short, but managed to establish an electrical connection from time to time, giving me short bursts of acceleration:

With that, I limped back to Lausanne (taking significantly longer than normally). But last week the replacement cables finally arrived

and over the weekend I "repaired" my car - if you can call unplugging one cable and replacing it repair. I can, obviously, but then I am a manly man.

Also, I really need to buy a repair manual for my car.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Long Burn

I forgot to switch of my experiment  last week I conducted a long-term experiment: Leave the plasma burning over night at about a quarter power. For fun I also switched off the cooling.

Surprisingly, my reactor did not melt down - all I managed to produce is some pretty heat discolouration of the electrode.

Actually, I even learnt a few things due to my mishap experiment, and not only "don't forget to switch off your plasma when you leave". By far the most power seems to be concentrated at the edges of the depression I had - this I suspected, but didn't know for sure. Furthermore, my perspex-rings at the edges (not shown in the picture above, but they would cover the holes you see at the top) were not damaged at all, which was quite surprising.

Also, the cooling water evaporated, blew off the rubber water tubes, and made a general mess. I was afraid that I would have a leak somewhere, but everything seems to be ok. Phew.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

New reactor, part II

Read part I here.

Work continues with the new test-reactor. I spent all day doing the technical drawings for the workshop. I use Inkscape, which is probably not optimal (it's a free vector-based drawing program, not a CAD), but it's what I know.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New reactor, part I

This will be a new, small research reactor for my master's student. It is, in fact, an ISO K reducing crosspiece, and will serve as a vacuum chamber.

You can still see the crude electrodes my collegue Ben (in action on the right) installed when he used it to demonstrate plasma during his public defense.
Unfortunately I can't go the same route, because this setup, while fine for demonstrating the magnificent fourth state of matter to the awed public (heh), doesn't lend itself to research. It is rife with parasitic plasmas which I am supposed to study - I try to avoid them whenever I can.

So I am designing a new little plasma-box to go inside the chamber - which is more fun than it sounds.

I'll keep blogging about the design process as it happens (live!physics!) - see some preliminary sketches below.

Friday, August 14, 2009


I wish I could take credit for deliberately over-exposing the background, but it was an accident. Still, the result is excellent!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On a completely unrelated note...

Has anybody ever noticed how much a sliced pepper resembles McDonald's arches?

Disgusting, that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New body

I've become the victim of techno-lust induced shopping. Again. Behold, my new body (on the right):

It's the Canon EOS 500D, next to it's much older sibling, the 300D. There is nothing wrong with the 300D, it still works fine, but I recently got to play with a Nikon 90D, and it was so much nicer, with its larger LCD, snappier response, better automatic mode, wider ISO range, etc., etc. So I went to a photoshop and asked if I could play a bit with Canon's latest... and I was hooked. And it was a good thing I was...

A new camera resulted in me running around taking pictures, of course. Here is, for example, my unfortunate friend David and his daughter Imothep Mathilde

He is, incidentally, the third friend of mine who has refused to name an offspring Imothep. I really have no idea why, since it is obvious that Imothep is one of the coolest names ever, even better than Feirefiz.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


No, this swan doesn't have a broken foot - apparently it is using his foot to cool himself via evaporative cooling. It's Physics!Swan!

Crappy photo with my iPhone, Lac Leman.

Monday, August 10, 2009

More from the stage '09

Due to popular demand (thanks Stephanie!) a few more words about the Võ Vietnam training camp:

T'was popular with young

and less young

We had sabres

 and swords

 and lances

 and staffs

 and, uhm, weird multi-limbed creatures

 It was a very dusty week

and Sarah was slapping people again

 but I had loads of fun, and can't wait to do the same thing next year, only in Vietnam!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Demon cat

Demon cat will eat your soul

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Off again

this time to the French Jura, to visit some friends.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Back from the stage

and a very excellent week of violence it was!

More photos to follow, and the very eager can go and look at a small selection here.