Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obscene tool spread

A while ago I noticed to my shock that I did not posess a single swiss-army knife. I had a couple of them when I was a kid, but now that I am actually living in Switzerland: Not a single one.

I had to remedy this situation before the governement got wind of it and had me deported. So I did some research, and found out that I didin't actually want a swiss army knife - what I wanted was a SwissTool (depicted to the right). Now I am not a hundred percent sure that this counts as a swiss army knife posession, since it's not red, so I probably will buy one of those too, just to be sure. But for now, let me wax poetic about the SwissTool, which is an awesome specimen of the genus "Multitool".

I've owned multitools before, a cheap knockoff called "Mammut" and a Leatherman, but none of them have had the built-quality of the SwissTool. In fact, it makes such a satisfying "snick" when you fold out one of the tools (they lock in place), that I've been playing with it for hours. Blade out. Snick. Blade in. Snick. Saw-blade out. Snick. Saw-blade back in. Snick. Then my collegues asked me to put it away, because it made them nervous. Can you believe that? But no matter, I can still hear it in my mind. Snick.

The tools included are:

Screwdriver (2mm)
Screwdriver (3mm)
Wire cutter (for wire up to a hardness of 40 hrc)
Screwdriver (5mm)
Bottle opener
Screwdriver (7.5 mm)
Large blade
Scissors or serrated blade
Metal file
Metal saw
Wood saw
Phillips screwdriver
Strong crate opener
Wire bender
Wire stripper
Wire scraper
Wire crimper
Can opener
Ruler (9 inches)
Ruler (230mm)
Hard wire cutter
Lanyard hole
Length: 11.5 cm closed, 17.1 cm open
Weight: 280 gram
 I got the version with a serrated blade instead of the little scissors, since I have neaver seen the reason to have some feeble scissors on a knife. What can you do with the scissors you can't do with the blade?

On a related note, I like the  filtered B&W function of Picasa.

On an unrelated note, I've overused quotes in this "blarticle", and am disgusted with myself.

Now excuse me while I go play with my SwissTool some more. Snick.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Nearly Summer

Place Bel Air, Lausanne
mutilated via Picasa 3.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Code of Honour

Alexander Hamilton showing Aaron Burr the what-for. [Source:Wikipedia]
for duelling, of course. How else would you settle affairs between Gentlemen, I ask you?

Here is the refreshingly short (and deadly) Code Duello from Ireland, 1777:

[Being extracts from pp 33-36 of The Duel: a History by Robert Baldick (first published in 1965; reprinted by Barnes & Noble Books, New York 1996).]

{This is the Irish code duello adopted by the gentlemen of Tipperary, Galway, Sligo and Roscommon at the Clonmel Summer Assizes, 1777, for the better government of duelists, and there prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland. 'The document was known in Galway as 'the 26 commandments' and is typical of the codes in force at the time in England and continental Europe.}

I. The first offence requires the first apology, though the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc. B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology, because he give the first offence, and (after one fire) B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology.

II. But if the parties would rather fight on, then, after two shots each (but in no case before), B may explain first and A apologize afterwards.

N.B. The above rules [both I and II] apply to all cases of offences in retort not of a stronger class than the example.

III. If a doubt exists who gave the first offence, the decision rests with the seconds. If they will not decide or cannot agree, the matter must proceed to two shots, or to a hit if the challenger requires it.

IV. When the lie direct is the first offence, the aggressor must either beg pardon in express terms, exchange two shots previous to apology, or three shots followed by explanation, or fire on till a severe hit be received by one party or the other.

V. As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore, are: the offender handing a cane to the injured party to be used on his back, at the same time begging pardon; firing until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots and then begging pardon without the proffer of the cane.

N.B. If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed, or until, after receiving a wound and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.

VI. If A gives B the lie and B retorts by a blow (being the two greatest offences), no reconciliation can take place till after two discharges each or a severe hit, after which B may beg A's pardon for the blow, and then A may explain simply for the lie, because a blow is never allowable, and the offence of the lie, therefore, merges in it. (See preceding rule.)

N.B. Challenges for undivulged causes may be conciliated on the ground after one shot. An explanation or the slightest hit should be sufficient in such cases, because no personal offence transpired.

VII. But no apology can be received in any case after the parties have actually taken their ground without exchange of shots.

VIII. In the above case no challenger is obliged to divulge his cause of challenge (if private) unless required by the challenged so to do before their meeting.

IX. All imputations of cheating at play, races, etc., to be considered equivalent to a blow, but may be reconciled after one shot, on admitting their falsehood and begging pardon publicly.

X. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman's care or protection to be considered as by one degree a greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regarded accordingly.

XI. Offences originating or accruing from the support of ladies' reputations to be considered as less unjustifiable than any others of the same class, and as admitting of slighter apologies by the aggressor. This is to be determined by the circumstances of the case, but always favourably to the lady.

XII. No dumb firing or firing in the air is admissible in any case. The challenger ought not to have challenged without receiving offence, and the challenged ought, if he gave offence, to have made an apology before he came on the ground; therefore children's play must be dishonourable on one side or the other, and is accordingly prohibited.

XIII. Seconds to be of equal rank in society with the principals they attend, inasmuch as a second may either choose or chance to become a principal and equality is indispensable.

XIV. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intends leaving the place of offence before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot- headed proceedings.

XV. The challenged has the right to choose his own weapons unless the challenger gives his honour he is no swordsman, after which, however, he cannot decline any second species of weapon proposed by the challenged.

XVI. The challenged chooses his ground, the challenger chooses his distance, the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.

XVII. The seconds load in presence of each other, unless they give their mutual honours that they have charged smooth and single, which shall be held sufficient.

{AGB's note: 'charged smooth' refers to the strict prohibition on the use of rifled barrels in duels; ‘single’ refers to one bullet only having been leaded into the barrel.}

VIII. Firing may be regulated, first, by signal; secondly by word of command; or, thirdly at pleasure, as may be agreeable to the parties. In the latter case, the parties may fire at their reasonable leisure, but second presents and rests are strictly prohibited.

XIX. In all cases a misfire is equivalent to a shot, and a snap or a non-cock is to be considered as a misfire.

XX. Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits as specified.

XXI. Any wound sufficient to agitate the nerves and necessarily make the hand shake must end the business for that day.

XXII. If the cause of meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses. In such cases firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement.

XXIII. In slight cases the second hands his principal but one pistol, but in gross cases two, holding another case ready charged in reserve.

XXIV. When the seconds disagree and resolve to exchange shots themselves, it must be at the same time and at right angles with their principals. If with swords, side-by-side, with five paces' interval.

XXV. No party can be allowed to bend his knee or cover his side with his left hand but may present at any level from the hip to the eye.

XVI. None can either advance or retreat if the ground is measured. If no ground be measured, either party may advance at his pleasure, even to the touch of muzzle, but neither can advance on his adversary after the fire, unless the adversary steps forward on him.

N.B. The seconds on both sides stand responsible for this last rule being strictly observed, bad cases having occurred from neglecting it.

N.B. All matters and doubts not herein mentioned will be explained and cleared up by application to the Committee, who meet alternately at Clonmel and Galway at the quarter sessions for that purpose.

 For a more begnin code (or, as I like to call it, duelling for pussies; Apologising after the first shot, in a duel fought over a blow? Please!) you are welcome to peruse the





In the rear of 48 Broad St,

over at greymalkns livejournal, here
Of course, if duels aren't your thing, you can always apologise...
Apology after the Irish Code Duello [source: Wikipedia] 
 or, you can hold it like Rudolf Virchow, who when challenged by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, chose as his weapons two pork sausages, a cooked one for himself and an uncooked one to be infected by  Trichinella spiralis for Bismarck (thus violating the rule of equality of weapons). Bismarck then withdrew the challenge, citing his well-known dislike of sausage, or something. Leave it to the Germans to bring it all down to Wurst.
Dueling weapons of an happier age [Source: Wikipedia]


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lac de la Gruyère

View south from the Lac de la Gruyère, the longest reservoir in Switzerland. 5 minutes from here you can find Gruyères itself, home to the famous cheese and the second-most visited village in Switzerland.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yet another lamp

I had so much fun building my last lamp out of plumbing fixtures that I made another. Also, I needed a bed-side light.

This time I incooperated a light switch - see me installing it here:

And here is the finished product, illuminating the head of my couch/bed:


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Substitution cake

I've made (and posted about) rhubarb cake before. Today, after a very frustrating day in the lab (LabView, oh how I hate you, you and your evil minion the GPIB bus) that thankfully ended on the high note of everything suddenly working - my lab-mates say it was simply the result of a day of hard work, but I maintain that the equipment was cowed at last by myself swinging a small bottle of hydrogen menacingly - I grabbed half a kilo of rhubarb on the way home.

The ingredients-list for the cake is simple:

  • Dough:

    Four egg-yolks, 150 g sugar, a packet of vanilla sugar, a shot of rum, 150 g butter, 250 g flour.

  • Topping:

    Four egg-whites, 100 g sugar, 500 g rhubarb, eventually some grated hazel.
 Only at home I noticed that I did not have any butter anymore, I had only three eggs left, and my sugar-reserves were down to a pitiful fifty grams. I could not find the enrgy to return to the shop (it is nearly a hundred and fifty meters, after all!), but I would not be thwarted. Three eggs will do for four, honey is a good substitute for sugar. I had no hazel, but found a packet of sesame seeds. Instead of butter I planned on using vegetable oil - only to notice that I had run out as well! But, there was still some mid-quality olive oil left...

To summarise, I used

  • honey instead of sugar
  • olive oil insted of vegetable oil  instead of butter
  • sesame seeds instead of hazel.

The result?

Really, really tasty. The sesame on top goes very well with the honey, the rhubarb supplies the acidic touch, and the olive oil adds an interesting touch. No, really. It was a pity I had not more eggs, since the egg-whites were a bit overwhelmed by the rhubarb (I just could not bear to cut down on it), so it is not as aestethically pleasing as usual. Also, I suspect the honey inhibited the rising of the egg-white a bit. But still, it's the taste that matters!

Don't ever be afraid of trying something out when cooking - most of the time it will work, more and more so when you get more experienced. Although sometimes... remind me to tell you of the horror that was my banana-liver sauté in crème fraîche!

As a bonus for my german-speaking readers (although others may find it auricularily pleasing) here is a small video about rhubarb cake. Also, why german is awesome.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Less Pressure

The last couple of days I have been fighting to get the base pressure of my reactor down. The fight was successful - a tenth of a microbar (about a tenth of a millionth of an atmosphere, or only ten times higher than the part of the thermosphere where the ISS is orbiting) is quite good for not having a turbomolecular pump running - and useless.

The reason why I wanted to lower the base-pressure was because I thought it was much higher in the order of hundreds of millibar. I thought this because my lowest-pressure Baratron refused to zero. You see, Baratrons are the best  vacuum gauge you can use, if you can use it. This is because Baratrons measure the pressure directly - they are in essence mechanical gauges that measure the deformation of a membrane capcitively. Accurate, not dependent on the gas-type, long-living, can handle corrosive gases, and you don't have to calibrate - except to zero them. Each Baratron will have a slightly different zero-point, so you have to pump down to about 1% of it's maximum range (or lower, if you can manage it), and then zero the signal. Then you can go on and use it from 10% of its maximum range up to its... wait for it... maximum range. Of course, that means that since I want cover a wide pressure range from 0.1 mbar to 100 mbar, I have to use 3 Baratrons: a 100mbar one, a 10 mbar one and a 2 mbar one (Those are the ones that were lying around in the lab).

Recently I wanted to go below 1 mbar for the first time, but couldn't get the 2 mbar Baratron to zero. This meant, or so I thought, that my base-pressure was above 0.02 mbar. I searched for a leak, I applied vacuum grease to all seals - no joy. Also, the seals were now angry and refused to play ball. Finally I dug up a cold cathode gauge... a tenth of a microbar?  Conclusion: The Baratron is broken, against all odds. Those things almost never break. Luckily I "found" another 2 mbar Baratron on an experiment that was, ahem, unattended. And whadda ya know, zip, zap, zero! Everything works just fine now.

Stuff breaks. Keep that in mind.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Learning Center

The new learning center is coming along quite nicely. I like the design, although I am curious how much wasted space you get in the interior because of the curvature... but it does look better than Bauhaus. I guess we'll know in about a year, if they keep on schedule.

Below a live image from the construction-webcam:

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Mmmh, the best pizza is the one you make yourself - no comparison to this travesty! I am not a fan of the Italian thin-film pizza (even though I am doing research in plasmas for thin-film deposition, fancy that), so here is my receipe for pizza:

  • 500 g flour
  • 7 g dry yeast (or 25 g fresh yeast)
  • a bit of sugar and salt
  • some warm water
  • tomato purée 
  • toppings (this time I used four kinds of cheese: Roquefort, Appenzeller, Gruyère and Mozarella, futhermore onions, leek and carrots) 
  • Herbs (for example basilicum) 
Put two tablespoons of sugar and the yeast into about 1/8 liter of water, leave it in a warm place until a centimeter of foam is floating on top of it. (This is not strictly necessary, you can mix the dry yeast directly with the flour and start your dough - but I think it will reduce the rise-time later on). Mix the water with the flour, add a pinch or too of salt, and then add water while kneading to produce a non-sticky dough. Put it into a bowl, and the bowl into a warm place. Let the dough rise for about one hour, or until it has doubled in size.
Spread it out,  cover with tomato purée (the concentrated one that comes in tubes) and toppings. Season with woody herbs. The pizza should look like this:

I folded back the sides and hid more chees underneath them - you never can have enough cheese!

Put the pizza in the oven at 200 degrees celsius. After about ten minutes it will start to smell good, then it is time to monitor the colour od the toppings - pull it out when it starts to brown. Here is the result:

Unfortunately I had to mutilate one side - in my greed I made the pizza too big, and it started to droop in the gap between the tray and the ofen door, so I had to scoop it up hastily (hot!). Still tasted excellent, though. don't forget to drown it in tabasco!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sometimes I don't understand the Swiss

Found on the Avenue de France on my way to the EPFL last week.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bikelight upgrade

Longtime readers (hi mum!) will remember my post about the butt-ugly diy bike light. I used a GU 5.3 20 Watt halogen bulb for awesome brightness, and a 7 Amp-hour sealed lead-acid battery to keep my awesomeness on the ground (it weighs in at about 5 kg, after all). This set-up gave me enough light so I only had to charge the battery only once a week, but I craved more!

Enter the Paulmann high efficiency led. 3 Watts, same standard (GU 5.3), 653 candela - and 60 swiss francs. Ouch. With this my energy-consumption should go down by about a  factor of five (now I have 20+1 Watt, with the new bulb 3+1 Watt), so I only have to charge once a month.

Installing was a jiffy thanks to my modular design, and here is the comparison of the beams:

 They are a bit difficult to compare, since I did not take care when snapping the pictures. That being said, the led-beam is more focused, and thus seems brighter. Overall I think it produces actually less light (anyone know the respective lux ratings?), but it is should still be more than sufficient for me to see.

Most importantly though, the 'eye' of my bike is now triangular, which is trice as good as before, somehow.

I also got some red leds for my backlight, which was a single one Watt white led "modified" with a red permanent marker until now...

Here is the result:

Last but not least, I had to change my back-tyre. From now on I will check the abrasive wear from time to time, to stop this from happening:

 Thankfully my tyre deflated on the top of the hill, and not at the bottom - could have been embarrassing!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

New Desk Lamp

A week ago boingboing ran a short blarticle about this cool Kozo-lamps  (whatever is a Kozo lamp? The name of the designer? Wikipedia fails me here!) from Etsy, made from plumbing fixtures. I really, really liked the look, and decided to make my own.

So this evening after work I headed to the nearest Obi, and raided their plumbing department. One hour later and là voilá! my very own plumbing fixture lamp. Bask in it's galvanised glory!

 It is of course illuminiating the "New Annotated Dracula" (see review here) as is fitting, because, ah, vampires like plumbing. Yes.

From another angle:

 And finally a black-and-white close-up, in case you want to make your own:

 It is really quite simple, and did not take me more than an hour. Well, it is not quite finished, since I still have to stuff the two cables into a bit of shrink-wrap or so, but it does work. In case you want to copy my design, you'll need (please excuse me if I get the terminology wrong, my knowledge of plumber-terminology is sadly lacking. Clearly, I will never get to be a vampire.):

  • 5 "elbow" pieces for the legs and head
  • 5 T-pieces
  • 6 short male-male connectors, 4cm long
  • 1 male-male connector, 8 cm long 
  • 1 female-female connector
  • 1 longer male-male pipe
  • one 40 mm to 12 mm reduction (the head)
  • a 40 mm diameter (GU 4), 12V, 20 Watt halogen bulb
  • a 12 Volt transformer capable of delivering 20 Watt
  • a bit of wire
  • a bit of super glue (cyan acrylate) 
Everything together (except the transformer, since I had an 18 Watt trafo lying around - won't get full brightness with it, of course) cost me around 70 swiss francs, or 46 euros.

Assemble the lamp and don't forget to insert the wire into the tubes. solder the leads to the  bulb and insert it into the lamp-head - glue it in with a bit of super-glue. Don't use hot glue, since the head will get quite hot. Aaand... that's it. You are now the proud owner of a plumbing fixture lamp. Do keep an eye out for jealous vampires!

A few modifications could be made to the design: Using leds instead of halogen bulbs would decrease the energy consumption by about a factor of five, while keeping the temperature of the lamp-head down. I actually thought about doing that, but being a victim of the evil, evil instant-gratification  society that formed me, I wanted my lamp now, now, now!, and using halogen saved me at least 10 minutes of soldering. There might actually led-replacement lamps for the halogen standard GU 4 - I know this stuff exists for GU 5.3, since I use it for my bicycle lights. But the good old Obi didn't have them and... now, now, now!

 So, tell me what you think: Fugly? Awesome? Will you make your own?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ants dont have traffic jams

I love reading the citation alerts of the Physical Review Letters. PRL is a very high quality journal of course, which only accepts papers that are a maximum of four pages of length and report something significant - for a quite stringent value of significant as determined by the editors and reviewers.

So if I find a paper pertaining to my research I can be sure that it will be a good one - but that's not why I love PRL. I love PRL because between articles like "Valence Bond Glass Theory of Electronic Disorder and the Pseudogap State of High-Temperature Cuprate Superconductors" or "Entanglement, Nonlinear Dynamics, and the Heisenberg Limit" you will find gems like

Trafficlike Collective Movement of Ants on Trails: Absence of a Jammed Phase 
 John, A; Schadschneider, A; Chowdhury, D; Nishinari, K
We report experimental results on unidirectional trafficlike collective movement of ants on trails. Our work is primarily motivated by fundamental questions on the collective spatiotemporal organization in systems of interacting motile constituents driven far from equilibrium. Making use of the analogies with vehicular traffic, we analyze our experimental data for the spatiotemporal organization of ants on a trail. From this analysis, we extract the flow-density relation as well as the distributions of velocities of the ants and distance headways. Some of our observations are consistent with our earlier models of ant traffic, which are appropriate extensions of the asymmetric simple exclusion process. In sharp contrast to highway traffic and most other transport processes, the average velocity of the ants is almost independent of their density on the trail. Consequently, no jammed phase is observed.

Not your typical physics paper! I especially like the idea of a bunch of theoretical physicist crouching on the parking lot of the Max-Planck Institute and observing ants...

The paper itself is quite interesting. They observed the traffic flow of ants on parts of unidirectional trails without branches, which you could compare to a piece of straight highway without exits or on-ramps. Surprisingly, they found that unlike humans, ants don't have traffic jams. The average velocity of cars on a highway decreases with increasing density - the cars bunch up and slow down. Not so ants: They scurry along happily, all with the same speed - with increasing density their speed distribution funcion just becomes a steeper gaussian - no one slows down, and no one overtakes!

The root of this phenomenon lies in their different "driving" behaviour. At low densities, humans speed along the highway seperately, each at his own speed. Ants, on the other hand, will assemble into small platoons or convoys, with each ant maintaining a fixed distance to the ant in front of it. So when the ant-density increases, the platoons will just get larger, and nobody has to slow down. Go ants!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Obscure Star Trek reference

This is a seminar I just have to go to:

Sumire Kobayashi
Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, USA
 Plasma Turbulence and Transport in a Ring Dipole System
 Mercredi 8 avril 2009 - 10h30 - Salle de conférence – PPB
The title is interesting enough, but the main thing is - the inventor of the Kobayashi Maru scenario!
 (Image stolen from here)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Solar cells hate the sun

I've been following a course in "Solar photovoltaics and energy systems" here at the EPFL - which provides a very interesting overview about all the different solar technologies out there, from ye olde silicon monocrystalline cell to the fancy new quantum dot or dye-sensitised solar cells.

Today our prof told us (with a completely straight face):

"People always worry about what happens when you put a solar cell out into the sun."

And they do. Most types of solar cells work perfectly fine in the dark, i.e. they produce no current at all, exactly what you would predict, but put them into the sun and they'll be up to all kinds of shenanigans. They'll degrade, they'll heat up and be much less efficient than predicted, etc. etc. Really, if you want your solar cells to last, keep them in a cool, dark place!

 The problem is of course that the semiconductor of a classical cell will heat up, which will change the characteristics and kill efficiency. UV will do all sorts of evil to your cell too.

Dye-sensitised solar cells (invented by Prof. Grätzel here at the EPFL!) don't suffer from heat-inefficiencies, and offer the additional advantage of working in low-light conditions as well (Both feats are due to the fundamentally different approach and quantum physics this is actually kinda cool if you are into this kind of stuff). Unfortunately, they degrade under continuous operation, and since they utilise a liquid electrolyte, they suffer a more destructive reaction to temperature extremes: The electrolyte will either freeze (and crack the cell) or expand (and crack the cell). Still, they might get that under control, or maybe we can switch to a solid electrolyte, as reported by Prof. Grätzel in Nature Materials last year. Although then you loose the advantage of flexible cells...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dice holder

Excellent dice holder: A small sample box. Don't tell the lab!

I played some Vampire: The Masquerade over the weekend - again in French.Contrary to last time, I actually understood what was going on, and was not only able to participate, I also managed to crack a few jokes.

I guess the lower noise level made all the difference - we played at my labmate's friend's house. It probably helped that I had an inkling of the rules as well, and that our game master spoke clearly.

Looking forward to the next game!

ps.: Why doesn't Vampire use twelve-sided dice? I think it should.