Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why I hate Labview

I have harped about this before (and most probably will again): stay away from LabView if you want to keep your sanity. Point in case:

First of all, this is not an overly complex program. Or at least it wouldn't be, in any other language. It only has to control three instruments, using fairly simple syntax. But thanks to LabView's oh-so-simple "graphical" programming metaphor, you have lines and shit going everywhere. Furthermore, I've begun to not propagate error messages from module to module properly, just to cut down on the number of "wires" so I still have a small chance to understand what is going on in my main program. This does not make debugging easier. And now this:

Insane object indeed. I think I'll look into migrating the whole shebang to Matlab.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thieves, thieves!

Oh yes, the internet is full of thieves. There I was, hands in my pockets, whistling as I wandered down the back-alleys of the internet, when I came upon a small display of a corner-shop hawking inks. I was not interested in inks, but the display (or article, if you have to destroy my metaphor. Thank you very much. Read it for yourself here.) was about invisble inks, and invisble inks are spy-stuff, and spy-stuff is cool. So I had a closer look, and I saw this:

Wait a minute, I thought. I know this image! That's one of mine! Indeed, somebody had stolen my image. Filled with righteous wrath, I contacted the company behind the blog display - oh sod it, this metaphor has been ridden to the ground like an old nag in an endurance race anyway - per email. And whaddayaknow, they actually replied ("We are so sorry" - that you found us out [<-my interpretation]) and offered to take it down.

Now I don't actually want them to do that, because I am in truth a bit chuffed that somebody liked my photo enough to use it to illustrate his article,  so I only asked for attribution, with which they complied.

So. Go read about 7 Amazing Types Of Invisible Ink & How You Can Use Them, and think about my glory as a photographer. Also think on how a bit of cropping by some englishman made my mediocre photo (original here) quite a bit better.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Remote surveillance

Yes, I have joined the dark side.

With the increasing automatisation of my experiment (courtesy of my slave student R.), it is possible for me to  leave it running for two hours or so, gathering data. Pressure, voltage and oscilloscope are all controlled by the PC, via Labview (urg). Unfortunately there rests always the small possibility of the experiment gaining sentinence and taking over the world (or crashing and leaving the RF generator running at full power, which would melt my electrodes), so surveillance is a must.

Now, I could have delved deeply into Labview to find out how to write an interface to control it over the intranet. If you have ever used Labview, you know how much joy that would be. Or I could do the following:

The small round blob with the pink tape on the right? That's a webcam, aimed at generator and scope. I've got a small gadget running in my google desktop that shows it's picture, so I'll know at once if something iffy is going on...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New car battery

After the latest bout of removing car battery, charging car battery, putting car battery back in I had enough, and bought a new one. It's an SLA (sealed lead acid) battery, so no more watering the battery. It holds the same charge (60 Amp-hours) as the old one, but has double the peak current, nearly 600 amps. Does that make any difference for my car? I have no idea. (This is something that fills me with dismay. I know nearly nothing about the ton of steel that carries me around from time to time. I think I will buy the repair manual for it, and do some light reading.)

Here they are, new and old, sitting next to each other:

Photo courtesy of the crappy iPhone camera. Why the iPhone camera? because I discovered Flickit, a marvelous software that takes a photo and uploads it to Flickr immideatly. Now, if, lets say, the man wants me to delete a photo, I can do so with the reassurance that it will live on on the internet, forever.

Anyway, here is my battery sitting snugly in the running car. (Note the professional anti-corrosion coating!) Afterwards I discovered that my old battery was just fine, I had only forgotten to shut off the interior light of the car. Sigh.

Friday, June 19, 2009


I've finally taken the plunge into colour: watercolour to be exact. And surprise! It's frustration all over again. Now that I can finally sketch something (when I have a reference) and be half-way happy with my sketch, colours have snook up on me and slapped me in the neck.

Gradient?  Highlights? Shadows? Arrgh!

Anyway, here is my first oevre: I only spent five minutes or so sketching it, and then a looong time swearing over the watercolours ;)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bare-bones Vacuum Coffee

I think it was in Make-magazine #17 that I read about how to make your own vacuum coffee. Vacuum brewing is a very elegant (and not to mention tasty) method of preferring my drug of choice:

You heat water in a closed vessel, closed, that is, except for one (air-tight) connection to the jar with your coffee-grounds. The pressure of the boiling water will press it into the coffee-jar, where it will steep. When you remove the heat from the first vessel, the cooling water-vapour will contract, and air pressure will push delicious coffee back through the connection. Above you can see how commercial variants work, I built a rougher version diagrammed below:

It has the advantage of being sheap, easy to assemble, and you can conceivably burn down your house while making coffee! To build it, I used the following materials:

The hardest to get is no doubt the glass flask, I was lucky to get one from the lab for free (we are not allowed to use glassware anymore - too "dangerous" ). I don't have glass tubing yet, so I make due with some plastic tubing. Inelegant, but free. As a heat source I use a cheap blowtorch. The sieve  (making sure that the grinds don't clog the tube) in the coffee jar is a tea-filter, and the coffee jar itself is just a small bowl from my kitchen. Then there is of course my awesome coffee grinder.

 In assembling everything, make sure that the tube connecting the flask to the coffee jar reaches nearly to the bottom of both containers. As you can see, my filter doesn't enclose the tube at all, so I have to make sure that the coffee grounds does not overflow.

And then... the heat is on!

Soon, if everything is airtight, the water will climb the tube and gurgle into the coffee grounds.

Stir the coffee a bit, and leave the heat on the flask for a minute or so, so that the coffee has time to steep. Then remove the flame. The hot air/water vapour in the flask will take a minute or two to cool, and then...

delicious coffee will start to climb back into the flask!

Mmmhhh, coffee.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Who watches the watches?

A couple of weeks ago my trusty Fossil wrist-watch coughed and died, after more than ten years of continous use. So I shopped around a bit, and in the end decided to get a Timex e-Tide. I choose the Timex (which is a sacrilege in and of itself: How can you buy an American watch in Switzerland?) because I had two main criteria while searching for a new watch:

  • It had to be analog - I detest digital watches
  • It had to do more than just show the time -  I wanted to have a built-in compass at least.

After some searching, the only watch that came close was the Timex. Tissot has the feature-wise very nice e-Touch, which unfortunately also has an additional digital display and is therefore fugly.

Timex doesn't have a shop in Switzerland (I guess they got kicked out by an angry Swiss mob armed with watchmaker-tools and cheese), so I ordered it over Amazon.

Here it is, next to my poor, dead old Fossil:

As you can see, the Timex is quite a bit bigger. I new that from the specs, but wasn't prepared for how much bigger a mere additional half-centimeter of radius would look. Now I am unsure. I quite like the design of the Timex, and while the tide-indicator is a bit useless in Switzerland, the compass and the temperature-sensor are fine (it's always good to know an uncertain average of your body-temperature and the ambient temperature). Only - is it too big for my delicate wrist?

What do you think?

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Aaand I am back again.

Did I mention that I hate driving? Especially a thousand kilometers in one go. Ugh. I had to go from Switzerlands high mountains (here the Simplon-pass)

down to the sea (ferry at Merag, Croatia):

At least there was almost no traffic, and I got to swim for a bit

but in the end the reason I drove down to Veli Losinj was to surprise my father for his seventieth birthday

andthat worked out just fine!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bollocks to this...

... I am off to Losinj, Croatia.

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Image source: wikipedia

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

New backpack, and my masculinity whimpers

Recently my trusty daypack died (can't complain though, two years for something that only cost about 40 CHF is alright, I guess), so I was in the market for a new one. I shopped around a bit, and then found a Deuter Gröden 30 SL, which is a bit, well, more expensive. But! I have had very good luck with Deuter backpacks - indeed, my bigger backpacks are all from Deuter, and I've been using them for years.

So, Deuter it is again. Of course, I didn't make it too easy for the Gröden. I packed it full of rope (you can get 4 30 m lengths of climbing rope in, barely), and hung out in the shop for about half an hour or so. It was really comfortable to wear and has the requisite four side-pockets (I need at least three), so I finally bought it.

Only to find out, at home, that deuters SL line is for girls. Oh the humanity! Seems that SL stands for SlimLine, and Deuter says that this line is specifically constructed for the female anatomy, most notably with narrower shoulder straps. And I bought it because it was the most comfortable backpack I could find! What does this say about my manly broad shoulders? Don't answer that, that was a rhetorical question.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go do something manly, to try and salvage what's left of my masculinity.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Some excellent coca

No, I am not talking about the leaf, although I am sure it is quite excellent as well. Coca is also a pizza-like catalan pastry, and a very fine one at that.
The recipe for the dough is the same as my own pizza-recipe, but the toppings don't. Last week-end I made coca con espinaca y pescado:

You'll need about a kilo of leaf spinach. Blanch it, and spread it over the dough. I also put on some cherry tomatos, some smoked salmon and some peeled shrimps. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.

The smoked salmon contrasts the spinach nicely, and the acid of the tomatoes serves as a nice counterpoint. A very different flavour than your standard, tabasco-soaked pizza!