Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Four Eyes

Sigh. For a couple of years I was Edward Eagleeyes. Well, except for the Edward-part.
I have worn glasses (and later contact lenses) since I have been twelve or so - my eyes stabilised at -6 dioptres when I was seventeen. In 2002 I had a LASEK operation which was a resounding success - I had better than 20/20 eyesight, for a while.
But now I seem to have developed a bit of astigmatism on my left eye, and -0.5 dioptres on my right. Not really debilitating, but enough that I noticed it when driving.

So now I have glasses again. More as a fashion accessory really - before my operation I had to wear them, or risk slamming randomly into lampposts.  Now I like to wear them, 'cause they just make me look so intellectual.

Calm down ladies, please. Not all at once!

Also, I am going bald. Must be all the testosteron. Yes. Me manly. Ugh!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I have a new favourite (english) word:

chthononosology - The geography of diseases

I recently discovered that the EPFL is subscribed to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is a delightful procrastination resource - the entries are much more detailed than the free Merriam-Webster.  Also, the M-W does not know chthononosology, and what kind of dictionary does that make of it, I ask you?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Báhn bao

Update: I am informed that these are spelled Bánh bao, and are steamed buns, not dumplings. Thanks go to Ky-Ahn for educating this poor westerner!

Yesterday a sudden hankering after Vietnamese (or Chinese - for us unenlightened westerners the difference is indiscernible) dumplings overcame me. You can make them with amazingly little effort, and they taste great!

The dough is basic yeast dough - 500g flour, water, some shortening, a packet of dry yeast and two tablespoons sugar. Mix and knead thouroughly, and let rise for about two hours, or until the volume has more than doubled.

Then form little balls, about two or three centimeters in diameter, and either throw them directly into the steamer for plain báhn bao, or flatten them and fill them with stuff.
I quickly fried some bacon, onions and vegetables, Garam Masala (not very authentic, I know), chillis and fish sauce, quenched in red wine as a filling.

Steam for ten to fifteen minutes.  Serve while still hot, or keep them in the refrigerator for a few days. Can be re-steamed, or even nuked in the microwave.


Monday, January 26, 2009


This Sunday we actually had some sun in Lausanne, so I was down at the waterfront taking some pictures...

Canon EOS 300D, 28 mm (45 mm equiv.), 1/500s, f/4.5, ISO 100

Friday, January 23, 2009

A horse

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.
This is probably the very horse that ate and buried her. What do you say? Pyrene is said to have been eaten by wild animals in the woods, where horses rarely roam?

Well, horses are sneaky that way.

Pyrenees, France, near the border to Andorra, 2004
Minolta Dimage Z1, 1/320 s, f/3.5, ISO 50

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hard disk upgrade

Lately I have found my 70 gigabyte hard disk a bit confining, so my poor old Dell laptop was due for an upgrade.

I ordered a bigger, faster disk ( a Western Digital 250 GB, with 16 MB cache) and an usb enclosure for it:

Putting the disk into the enclosure is simplicity itself, just plug the thing on the left onto the disk, slide in and tighten two screws.

Then I used Norton Ghost 14 to clone my internal disk to the new, now external usb disk.

Afterwards I opened up the enclosure and my laptop and swapped the two disks:

I rebooted - and the laptop ground to a halt at the windows login screen. Not even a nice crash - just nothing but a soothingly (ha!) blue screen. Whipping out my trusty iPhone, I searched for the reason, and soon Google told me where I went wrong: Under no circumstances should I have mounted the new disk in Windows before cloning to it. Because  Windows remembers the drive letter assigned to the disk, and when you clone it you transfer the registry as well - so when booting it searches for the OS in C:\, but assignes the old letter (in my case F:\) to your spanking-new system disk.

There is an easy solution for that floating around on the internet, that does not, unfortunately, work in my case: Boot from an Win98 bootdisk (or usb stick) and perform fdisk /mbr, which erases the disk label, so Windows does not "remember" to assign the wrong letter to the disk.
But Win98 can't read NTFS, so no fdisk for me. The newer fixmbr-thing that comes with Windows XP  does not work, because it does not erase the disk label.

But! There is another way: I connected my old disk vie the USB  enclosure. This had still the letter "C:\" assigned to it, so I could boot.  Then I found and followed the instructions here, which show you how to reassign the letter of the system drive while windows is running, using regedit. It worked!

Now I have place for all the pr0n photos I crave - and it took me only a paltry five hours!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cave du Bleu Lezard

Some live music  yesterday in the Cave du Bleu Lezard:

The new lens performs brilliantly!
The bands (all from the EPFL) were surprisingly good, especially the last act, "Little Joe"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I stumbled over this marvelous idea for the repurposing of old magazines via lifehacker. You need at least two of them (depending on their thickness, they have to be the same height). Grab one, and leaving out the front cover, take about ten pages and fold them back on themselves. Continue until you run out of pages (including the back cover), and then fold the cover over the first fold. No glue needed!

This might also make a coffee table, if you fix them in place with a bit of hot-glue and added a glass plate.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Some more photography with my new lens:
Canon EOS 300D, 28 mm, 1/500 s, f/14, ISO 100

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Positive Body Image

Canon EOS 300D, EF 28 mm: 1/25 s, f/7.1, ISO 100

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New lens

Oh yes, the Canon EF 28 mm f/1.8 USM.

What an awesome, awesome lens. I ran around with it in Lausanne, yesterday evening. If you are not interested in photography, you may want to look at the picture I took below and skip the text, because I will be waxing poetic about it the next few paragraphs.

First of all, it is a fixed lens - no zooming. I actually quite like that, because it means I can concentrate on photography. There are some photos I can't take with it of course, but on the other hand I know (or will know, once I have worked with it for some time) it's frame, and can amble along framing potential pictures in my mind.

Next, it's USM, or UltraSonic Motor. That means it focusses fast, and you can grap the focal ring and manually override it if the autofocus gets it wrong . Brilliant.

It's 28mm, normally a wide-angle, but with my EOS 300D this works out to a 45mm equivalent, or a "normal" lens.

It's optically fast. f/1.8 means the aperture opens to 28/1.8 = 15.56 mm. That is 6 f-stops below my old lens, which means wide open I get 64 times the light! This in turn means hand-held photography in the night or in pubs or concerts...

Photo: Psychedelic Stairway. EOS 300D, EF 28mm, f/2.5, 1/40 s, ISO 800

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fiat beatitas

Yesterday I phoned my sister, and lo and behold! she reports happiness, energy and general wellbeing. Seems the lightbox was a success - or she got better on her own. Whatever the case may be (and I'm rooting for the lightbox, of course), good news all around!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Crappy ugliness

Parts of the EPFL are really butt-ass ugly, as proven by exhibit A to the right. Surprisingly, their ugliness matches the crappiness of the iPhone-camera almost exactly. Nevertheless, this does not a good photo make. Also this post has no point and can be ignored. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Yes, I finally did it, I broke my iPhone out of Apples confining App-store straightjacket. It was very straightforward, and now I can finally sync my Google calendar with the iPhone's calendar. Take hat, Jobs!

I have not really installed any free applications except for Nemussync (the aforementioned syncing) and Winterboard (prettying up and costumising the GUI). An Searcher (see screenshot of it installing to the right), which searches through all your contacts, events and sms.

The only application that seems not to be available in either the App-store or free repositories is an alarm clock that plays music in the morning. Why? To me, this is such a basic functionality. Why should I have to wake up to some ugly ringtone each morning, when there are four gigabyte of music on the damn thing? Why???

On a happier note, I must have read more than 10 000 pages on my iPhone already. Right now I am reading, or trying to read, Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Christo. A book I like, and have read multiple times in it's German translation. The French original, however, proves to be less... accessible. But I shall persevere, and learn such important words as l'artimon (foremast) in the process.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bad blurb

A couple of days ago I read the free ebook Earthweb, from Mark Stiegler, published in the Baen Free Library.

I only started to read it because I was immensly bored, and hadn't read anything of Stiegler before. I nearly dismissed it out of hand, because of this blurb:

Someone Out There really hated humans. Twenty years have passed since Shiva I first swept aside Earth's crude defenses and rained down destruction. Now Shiva V has entered the Solar System, more powerful than any of its predecessors.

The Shiva cannot be destroyed by fleets of ships: we tried, and it was the fleets that were destroyed. It cannot be defeated by a clandestinely developed super-weapon based on new principles of physics: no such weapon exists. It cannot be defeated by a forceful American President and his faithful generals: they do not know what to do.

There is only one way to defeat a Shiva: get inside and kill it. Once again, in the personae of five champions, four billion of us are about to do just that.

Whoever wrote that should be pelted with dead invertebrae. Because Earthweb is not a bad read. True, it is not one of the most original novels ever: The concept of sentinent robots out to kill biological life has been done before, and done better (most recently by Alistair Reynolds, and his books you should definitely read). The very interesting concept of crowd intelligence (people can bid on the likelihood of new ideas to be correct or to succeed in an open market, which is central to the novel, and not even mentioned in the blurb) has also been done before. But it is a nice novel to read, and maybe perfect for a long flight or trainride. And it is not just a tale of a couple of heros slugging it out with killer-robots, which is what I suspected from the last sentence of the blurb.
Rather, it deals with the impact of having the Earth threatenend every couple of decades on society, the influence of personal feelings on leadership, well, and killer robots. There are some killer robots as well.

Friday, January 9, 2009


it's what you don't want in the toxic gas room.

At my institute, all gas bottles with toxic or explosive stuff in them are stored in the toxic gas room, which is very well ventilated, i.e. it has only three walls. Today I wanted to use some hydrogen in an experiment, so I went to egage the safety system and open all the valves (approximately 500 or so). But when I opened the main safety valve, I heard something you don't want to hear, especially after opening the 400 bar Hydrogen bottle: "Pshhhh!"

Further examination yielded more detail I would have been happy to remain ignorant of: The apparent leak, strong enough to move one of the many safety labels, was at the valve of the acetylene bottle, which is right next to the silane bottle. The gas system connects them all together, but normally they are, when not in use, seperated by big, fat valves. Valves, I might add, that are not supposed to hiss. Now acetylene is highly combustible of course, hydrogen explodes quite nicely, but the real bummer is silane, which is pyrophoric - in air it spontaneously combusts.Wich is normally just annoying - with a bit of hydrogen and acetylene however, it could get interesting. For a moment my eyes went even bigger, to properly process what might the last image they and everybody in the building would ever see, and then I slammed the nice, red emergency-stop button. In fact, I may have slammed it a couple of times, with vigour.

Then I went into the next room, shut off the klaxon, and called my professor. "Christoph," I said, "there may be a small problem with the toxic gases." Despite the utter calmness of my statement, he must have suspected something, because he came remarkably quickly.

In the end, all the excitement was over hot air, or pressurised air, as it were. All the big valves are  controlled by pressurised air, and one of them had stuck half open because of the cold - during the night we had around minus ten celsius, and as mentioned above, the room is lacking a wall. For safety reasons.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


My friend Chruss, who may just be the best of his kind, found a copy of all the photos I took back in 2005, when we went from Vienna to Bejing by train. I had lost most of them due to the failure of two laptops and a harddisk in rapid sequence.

See here for example two mongolian woman in the transsiberian railway, selling stuff. For many of the small villages and town along the transsibirian, the train is the only connection to the rest of the world, especially in summer when the tracks are muddy and sometimes impassable. Canny mongolian traders use the 25 minutes stops of the express trains to sell everything from clothes to spigots.

Below the same scene as seen from a outside the train:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Light-box follow-up

Here is a quick long follow-up on my light-box construction post, which garnered unprecedented attention - thank you for all the comments!

When I set out to build the light-box, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision on december the 23rd. And let me tell you, buying something at IKEA on that day gives you a disorder all on it's own. I did not have much time for research, so I read a couple of webpages and set off. Now that I have a bit more time, I searched and found more information; here is a quick summary:

  • Light therapy has been shown effective in numerous clinical trials since the 1980s (Lewy et al. 1982, Rosenthal et al. 1984 being the first)
  • According to most studies, 5000 lux-hours/day give the best clinical response, 10000 lux for 30 minutes is most commonly used in practice. Note that I am talking about lux here, i.e. luminous flux, or lumen per square meter. The luminosity of light bulbs is given in lumen, which is the total light output in all directions. When building your lightbox you want to focus that in the direction of your patient. I used aluminium foil as a reflector, as a few commenters have rightly pointed out, a flat white coat of paint would have been more efficient (and would probably look better). Something to bear in mind for the lightbox Mark II.
  • Light colour: Numerous studies have been done concerning which colour of light to use (Brainard et al. 1990, Lam et al. 1991 and 1992, Oren et al. 1991, Steward et al. 1991). Some found that green light was better than red one, and white light superior to yellow light, while others found no difference in efficacity. All agree however, that all light colours do have an effect. I went with soft white light bulbs, because I wanted to be sure to avoid UV.
  • UV: There was a series of studies by Lam et al. (1991 and 1992) that first reported that white light with UV was superior to white light only, but a follow-up study by the same guy with a larger group of subjects found no difference. I think it is better to avoid shining too much UV into your eyes.
  • Cost: A commenter asked me about the total cost of the project. I did not keep my receipts, but this is more or less what I paid (Sister, if you are reading this - skip the next paragraph!):

    *) 10 23W Philips CFL spiral light-bulbs: 80 Euro
    *) IKEA Mackis box woth lid: 20 Euro, but since this is a set of three boxes, you have the two smaller ones left over
    *) 10 bulb holders, switch and cable: about 20 Euro
    *) Aluminium foil, wood and construction glue: Free because filched from my parents

    Which gives a total cost of about a 120 Euros.
Most of the information above is from the book

Seasonal affective disorder and beyond light treatment for SAD and non-SAD conditions: Light Treatment for Sad and Non-Sad Conditions
By Raymond W. Lam
Published by American Psychiatric Pub, 1998
ISBN 0880488670, 9780880488679
Here are the relevant pages for your perusal (thanks, google book search!):

Brainard GC, Sherry D, Skwerer RG, et al.; J Affect Disord 20:209-216,1990
Lam RW, Buchanan A, Clark CM, Remick RA; J Clin Psychiatry 52:213-216, 1991
Lam RW, Buchanan A, Mador JA et al; J Affect Disord 24:237-243, 1992
Lewy AJ, Kern HA, Rosenthal NE, et al.; Am J psychiatry 139:1496-1498, 1982
Oren DA, Brainard GC, Johnston SH, et al.; AM J Psychiatry 148:509-511,1991
Rosenthal NE, Sack DA, Gillin C, et al.; Arch Gen Psychiatry 41:72-80,1984
Steward KT, Gaddy JR, Byrne B, et al.; Psychiatry Res 38:261-270,1991

Friday, January 2, 2009

Fun with Chiles

Receipe for hot & spicy fun:

Take some chilli con carne or a similar dish. Season very mildly, explain to your friends that you "can't season it properly because you are a bunch of sissies". Put a glass of whole, dried chiles on the table, for "those who want some real flavour." Serve, and watch carefully as people use their fingers to crush the dried chiles. Then tell everybody to "take care not to touch their eyes now, because it $%&^@ hurts!". This seems gnaw at ths subconcious, because not soon after somebody will touch their eyes, or pick his nose.
Lean back and enjoy the ensuing hilarity, especially when people laugh tears at the first unfortunates and then proceed to wipe those away...

For an encore tell everybody to take care when visiting the toilet...