Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Monday, April 30, 2007


I went to Morges yesterday, a small village next to Lausanne. It was a beautiful day (despite the thunderstorm with requisite hail afterwards), and everybody and his ... swan was out having fun. This one apparently wanted to slide...

Another one (below) enjoyed domestic bliss.

Talking of birds, there was a duck watching people have their coffees in Morges - don't ask me why, I have never understood swiss ducks.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Fondue à l'ail des ours - heaven.

First some kind of wierd but good plum-wine, then a bit of viande sechée, and then...

The only problem is that you can't speak French very well yet, so you don't have much to say. Just listening and understanding what three native speakers say to each other strains your abilities (and your concentration) to the limits. There is nothing left to formulate sentences with, so you don't. It just so happens that this means you have more time to eat. And eat. And in the end you have to mobilize your last reserves to manage the best part: eating the cheese-crust on the bottom of the pot.

But you do your best, and thankfully nobody insists on desert. Even the cappuccino you order by reflex was a mistake, you should have got yourself an espresso, it takes up so much less space! Thankfully the restaurant was on top of the Mont Lausanne, so you can let gravity do it's thing and roll down-town.

As you accelerate into the gravity-well, you can't help to think that this must be what switherland is all about: High mountains and heavy cheese. It all fits together!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Poodle or sheep?

This is extremely funny. It seems that a couple of crooks sold poodles in japan, over the internet of course. Over 2000 people bought one, until an actress complained on TV that her poodle did not bark, and refused to eat dog-food. A couple of nature-savvy viewers then recogniced her "poodle" as a sheep with a fancy haircut...

I wonder why she did not think it strange when her "poodle" started grazing the lawn? Also, how many sheep died of malnutrition in Japan's mega-cities because there was no lawn?

Update 27/04/07:

Ohh, according to Snopes that story is a hoax. And to think it made my day yesterday! Well, the net giveth, and the net taketh away...


Outside the ivory tower of academic research, life can be brutal. Oftentimes only a few centimeters separate the aloof spectator from the mortal struggle that is man's existence.

In this case it was a bit of fused sand (viz. the window) that sheltered me from the ferocious arachnid while it devoured it's doomed prey.

Spring is coming, and the spiders are hungry.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Liquid Nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees centigrade) is fun stuff, don't let anybody tell you otherwise. You can put things in, take them out, smash them against the floor, and howl in unholy glee as normally unshatterable things such as flowers, small animals or your finger fly into a million pieces. Also, you can stick a banana in and then use said banana to hammer in a nail into the wall. Or give it to a monkey for some Schadenfreude. You can make fog, clean your floor, shock-freeze your strawberries so they do not get all squishy when they thaw up, and you can make wicked ice-cream out of everything remotely liquid. I have been planning to make beer ice-cream for nearly a decade now, and soon, soon the time will be right.

Because just a floor above my lab there is a huge helium liquefaction plant, which they use to get - you guessed it - liquid helium. And liquid nitrogen is more or less a byproduct of the process, so we got loads.

Sigh. It is not possible for me to tell you how hard I have to fight the temptation to throw my cell phone into the dewar every time I go to get some for the lab. I just have to know if it will still work afterwards. Maybe it will get superconducting and make calls really fast? But then, for that to happen I would have to drop it into liquid helium, which is much colder. Which does not reduce the temptation, because of the liquefaction plant mentioned above...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Carnaval - Photos

Voilà, here are the Photos I promised. Above, two different Gugga- (or is it Guggen-?) bands, and to the left an overview of the Carnaval (Friday afternoon, on the evening it was packed).

But now to something completely different. Civilization takes giant steps all the time (only cynics ask about the direction), and after caffeinated water we have now reached the ultimate pinnacle with caffeinated soap. I demand that somebody buys me some of this. I think it will also prove the superiority of human civilization to any and all alien races, who will bow down before our clean, hyperactive bodies.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Carnaval de Lausanne/ More Bureaucracy

Well despite Anigers (rumors abound about her alias, does it come from ANimal tIGER, as opposed to stuffed tigers? Or, as critics note, she might be one of the feared Amoral Nihilistic tIGERs, who still roam the forests of Europe... ) cries in the comments of yesterdays post, there are no pictures of the carnival yet, because I inadvertently left my camera at home which makes uploading difficult. But I will have some tomorrow for sure!

The carnival was, well, I now know what Guggenmusic is. Frankly, I could have lived without that. It's - I hesitate to use the terms band or group - hordes of people playing deliberately false. Which could be post-modern or something, but at least the hordes I heard do it in a less than skillful way. It makes your ears bleed. At least they are funny to look at, which I will prove tomorrow.

Also, I finally might have gotten my application for the ecole doctorale through. Deadline to apply was the 30th of April. You need three recommendation letters, which have to be sent by snail-mail, signed and sealed and wrapped in the skin of unborn infants. No fax or email allowed. It says so at least three times on the web-page.

Well, one of my recommendation letters came from Australia, and was eaten en route by the evil mer people, who, as everybody knows, always have a hankering for bureaucratic nonsense, especially if wrapped in the skin of unborn infants. (By the way, it seems that after 2000 Years the catholic church has stumbled onto the fact that unbaptized babies might go to heaven, after all. News sources that say that this was a decision taken by the church because people in developing countries with high infant-mortality have been converting to Islam in droves are misguided, evil and will certainly burn in hell.) So I went to the secretariat of the ecole doctorale with my ceremonial obsidian dagger, fully prepared to throw a temper tantrum and/or sacrifice everyone in my way. I barged in, stated my problem - and the nice lady there looked at me with doe-eyes and asked me why my professor couldn't send the letter by fax?

I snapped for air, my dagger slipping from my suddenly slack hand and shattering on the harsh granite below. Then I took a deep breath, said: "D'accord. Merci bien!" and left, my head held high. You have to savor the small victories they give you.

Friday, April 20, 2007


I am playing around with Femlab recently. Femlab is not an utility to design the woman of your dreams, which would be wasted on me anyway because I have found mine already (That's her on the left, asking after the way in Vilnius). It is rather a vastly powerful finite-element solver, which can simulate stuff ranging from heat conduction to radio waves, mechanical stress and fluids. As with all these really powerful programs, the learning curve is very steep.

And what's even worse: I do not trust my results. There are so many switches and parameters and thingamagics and watchamacallits in the program, which supposedly all do stuff and might change my results. Or they might not. Or they might crash the program. Which is not Femlabs fault (even they changed the name to COMSOL recently - I guess too many horny teenagers called support) of course, because you can find out all those things, if you have time enough. Which is more or less the definition of steep learning curve anyway, and I am only blathering on to hear myself type.

This weekend there will be a carnival in Lausanne. Don't ask me why, it being after Easter and all, but apparently those Protestant heretics don't care. I don't either, but I might take some pictures.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

General stuff

It seems my creativity is at an all-time low - I have no stored blarticles, can't think of much to write and whine too much.

Furthermore, four of my friends are expecting (either themselves or their significant others), two have proposed and five are already parents or married.Which has nothing to do with the above, and is neither good nor bad, just weird.

Also (and the following is despite my promise not to write about plasma anymore) I discovered today that hollow cathodes ignite much easier when the plasma is electronegative, and that PADEX takes some time to flush all the air out if I switch it on, so that the Argon plasma wasn't, and I will have to redo most of my experiments.

On the positive side I do have new sandals - but then, I let the siren-song of high-tech convince me to buy sandals where the sole is made of some plastic-ceramic-nanometallo-organic compound, which means that no animals died to make my sandals, which in turn makes me unhappy. Well, maybe producing the sandals polluted our environment a bit.

The photo above is dawn over Lac Lèman.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

ATM Card

For a couple of days my ATM card has been acting up. Specifically, it has declined to work with any ATMs that are not of its own branch, as well as the ATM-cash registers in shops.

So today I went to my bank to complain, and ran into a problem that never fails to get me railed up: I knew more the matter on hand than the nice girl of customer support. It was very nice of her to tell me to try and clean the magnetic stripe on my card. Unfortunately I

  • would have thought of that myself - it is not often that I instead apply a layer of grease to see whether it will ameliorate the transaction
  • know that the magnetic stripes on the cards are not used anymore, haven't been for years. At least in Europe, everything works via the embedded chip.

I cautiously asked her if there might be some other reason for the problem, maybe in the computer system. She smiled brightly, and told me all she could do was get me a new card. Which costs me a hundred CHF. I hemmed and hawed for a while, but then gave in. The new card will arrive next week - we will see if it works.

Monday, April 16, 2007


In a fit of temporary (I hope) insanity, no doubt influenced by the ghastly weather, I left my trusty trekking sandals at home when I came to Lausanne. True, they were three years old, battered and smelly, and my girlfriend did threaten to withdraw sexual favors if she happened to see me in them, but they were no ordinary sandals. They had history. In them, I had traipsed about in the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean, Siberia, Mongolia, China, Australia and a couple of other places. They welcomed my feet, caressed them, and when I was too tired they used to take my steps for me. Maybe I should have washed them more often.

Anyway, the point is not to wax poetical about a pair of sandals, but that I do not have any now that the weather is warm enough (24 degrees Centigrade!). Which is why I sat aside my manliness and went shopping on Saturday. Oh Woe! Problem is, I do not want any old pair of Sandals, I want one that will hold together another three years, one that will not let me steep in my own sweat, one sturdy enough to let me use them on mountains and cliffs, etc., etc.

I am prepared to pay for them quite handsomely, as I paid about a 100 Euro for my last pair. Unfortunately, you can't find Sandals like this in any old shoe or sport equipment store. They are only sold in little, out-of-the-way holes in the wall, known only to the initiated whose location is a jealously guarded secret. So all I did find on Saturday was Intersport and their ilk, which have sub-quality imitations of the real thing (with plastic soles. I mean, come on, where is the point in wearing sandals if the sole of your foot is sitting on a recycled soda bottle? All the rest of my gear, jacket, trousers, backpack is already made of dead and fossilized dinosaurs, I want something on my feet that died recently!), but with high enough prices that you would think a whole heard of plastic cows had to be hunted down and killed for each pair.

So I did not find any sandals. Life can be harsh. But today I cornered a well known swiss Sherpa, and after an hour of interrogation concerning the location of his secret equipment stores he gave up and me the answer: "J'utilise Google, mon pote!"

And he was right. Google furnished me with the address of two such stores, and I have high hopes for today's evening.

The photo, by the way, is of the shores of Lac Leman, sunset on Saturday.

Friday, April 13, 2007

More Plasma Goodness

But I promise that this will be the last plasma-post for a while. Unless I find something really cool. Anyway, to the left you can see a couple of hollow cathodes burning. Note that the plasma has a greenish tint to it - probably contamination since the reactor is not entirely clean. The pink glow at the bottom is the ground electrode, and the pinkish points above are holes in an 1.2mm thick aluminium plate which act as hollow cathodes.

Down below you can see what happens when you crank up the power - depending on the pressure the plasma gets unstable and you get those bright spots which are moving around very fast, probably plasmoids. The picture was taken at 1.5 mBar neutral pressure, and 500 Watts RF power.

Oh, and there might be no posts over the weekend, since I might go hiking.


Not for me of course - there is no such thing as holidays for PhD students. But Master students have easter holidays right now. I knew that. But this did not prevent me from cheerfully rocking up at the centre du sport at 1215h on Wednesday, for my Vo-Vietnam lesson. After waiting for fifteen minutes in the empty centre, I gradually realized that holidays might mean no lessons. So I showered because I could (and because my girlfriend keeps telling me of some weird practice called "Hyge-something"), and returned dejectedly to my lab.

On Thursday at 1215h I packed my things and went for my French lesson. I maintain that this was just to see whether holidays really means no lessons, for as any good scientist knows an experiment has to be repeatable to mean anything. Other, less kind people have told me less kind things. Anyway, for those of you who haven't guessed: no lessons. But I did try to look intelligent while standing in the deserted centre des langues. It did not work.

Today is Friday, and I will have Vo-Vietnam lessons at 1215h. Boy, am I looking forward to them!

On a completely unrelated note, it is spring here in Lausanne, therefore the photo above.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I have talked about matchboxes before (yesterday as well), but since I just finished building my very own (or rebuilding it, rather - I just replaced the inductance), I'll talk about them a little more. To the left you see the new matchbox in all it's gory glory. Two vacuum capacitors (expensive), an air-core coil (that's the red piece of wire in the middle), that's all there is. Oh and its a π - matching network, if anyone is interested. Its called π - matching network, because it sort of looks like a π, if you squint and are bored and are looking for a cool name for your new network.

For contrast, there is a picture of a commercial antenna tuner below. In fact, it is the one I killed the other day. What happened is that the inductance burned, because it is much more feeble and wimpy than my macho inductance on the left. Also, the capacitors of the commercial version are air-core capacitors, much less cool (or should I say much more uncool? Neither sounds exactly english, but since I am residing in Suisse-romande, I get to ignore stuff like this.) than my hypercool vacuum capacitors - much cheaper as well, because mine cost about 1000 SFR apiece. the tuner is a T-matching network (guess why), which is not ideal for plasma matching, but works anyway.

Even belower you can see a closeup of the damage of the Coil That Lost.

I was also going to write a bit about how matching networks work, but ended boring myself and stopped - for which I hope you will all be grateful. Anyway, since the calculations for the coil I used were pretty simple (I took a piece of wire, wound it a couple of times until it cried, stuck it into the box and got lucky), there is no need to dig up all the theory.

Hollow Cathode Plasma

As promised yesterday, another photo of an argon-plasma. You can see the new electrode above, with different-sized holes in it. Each hole is a hollow cathode, and lights up under the right conditions, producing a much denser plasma than a flat electrode would. I also wanted to show you what happens if I increase neutral pressure and power, but then my flowmeter died - no more argon until I change it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New toys

Yesterday my external USB hard-disk arrived. I had planned to buy one for ages - since my laptop got stolen last year in Sydney, actually. I plan to use it as a - you guessed it - backup, not that my critical (read anything to do with my thesis) data is not backed up on three different computers anyway, one of them with a RAID 1 array. Yes, I lost about one month worth of work last year, let's not talk about it anymore, okay?

Anyway, now I am the proud owner of 320 gigabytes of external storage, hooray!

It seems that this is a week of joy and parcels for me, because today the two matching-boxes I ordered arrived, the MFJ-969 (300 Watt) and the MFJ-989D (3000 Watt). Since morning I have been busy installing them, and there might be some new plasma-photos later on.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Posts, Spam

Well, email-posting is not as good as it appeared to be - I hate having no control over layout and whatnot. Therefore posting might be spotty over weekends, until I get a reliable internet-connection.

When I looked in the mail on thursday I was delighted to find a thick cardboard envelope. I was pretty sure that it would be my permit de sejour, which would mean that I would be getting a new toy, namely a new mobile (for which you need the damn permit).

Etymological interlude:
In Austria and Germany a mobile phone is called Handy, leading to no end of confusion for the anglophones when unsuspecting German speakers visit. I had always thought that Handy came from handy, but I had a look around the internet the other day, and found out that the terms origins are more interesting, and older than I thought. When the first portable radio transceivers came up, they were the size of backpacks. But you could walk around with them, and talk at the same time, so they were termed walkie-talkies by American soldiers. Consequently, the first hand-held units in the forties were called handie-talkies . Originally, this term was a play of words, and probably came out of the pidgin english spoken by American troops in Hawaii, but for German speakers (who learned it the occupying Americans after World War II, the "Handie" in Handie-Talkie seemed to be a substantive, and not an adjective. The term seems to have fallen into disuse later on. However, people remembered, and when the first cell networks for hand-held units evolved out of the car-phone networks, the term was reused.

Alas, the envelope (without sender marked on the outside) proved to be spam-mail by the supermarket chain Migros. This brings me (finally!) to the reason for this blarticle: How the hell did Migros get my address? I have been here barely five weeks, and have given my address to: The EPFL, the Swiss government, the Swiss rail, my bank and one telecom provider. One of them has to have sold me out. I think I will write an email to Migros and ask who, although I do not expect an answer.

Since I have to have at least one photo per post, here is a photo of the cathedral of Lausanne. I really do like the old town here - I feel delightfully medieval going through it. Also, there are not too many cars...

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Internet in Lausanne

It's been hard for me to post on weekends, since I do not have an internet connection at home. There is a unsecured network, but the signal is very weak, and breaks up every couple of minutes. Which I am not too unhappy about, because if it were strong, I would probably use it and have a bad conscience all the time, because I would be stealing from somebody too clueless to secure his own network. Actually, if my hypothetical victim had a limitless broadband connection - would it be stealing? But the point is that I do not know, and it could very well be the nice grandma two doors down, with some kind of nasty 256 MB/month plan, who would go
bankrupt because of all the surcharges if I used her connection.

So generally I don't have internet at home. But today I found out that there is a free, public hot-spot at the Place St. Francoise , just one minutes walk from my place.

Plus there is a couple cafe's there, so no need to sit in the freezing rain - or in the sun squinting at my screen.

The only problem I have left is that I cannot sign in to blogspot for some reason - my guess is that the network is blocking some port I would need. But I am able to sign in to my email account, so as soon as I set up the nifty blog-by-email feature, I am set, and there will be no further days without posts!

There you go, my first post via email. It's a pity I can't label it properly, or post pictures...

Update: Another problem appeared. After about one hour of happy internet surfing, the free hot-spot kicked me out, and I couldn't connect anymore. I do not understand why and how though. I thought that it maybe limits your time, and tried to change my MAC-address to fool it, but no such luck.

Update: Grrmbl, fixed all the errors that crept into the post, added image. More posts tomorrow

Thursday, April 5, 2007


I just love the huge variety of stuff people study and write papers about. Point in case, I was just glancing through my citation alerts, and found the following gem in Physical Review Letters E:

Shape and erosion of pebbles
Authors: Durian, DJ; Bideaud, H; Duringer, P; Schroder, AP; Marques, CM
PHYSICAL REVIEW E, 75 (2) 1301-1301, Part 1; FEB 2007

I find it absolutely amazing that people are studying the curvature of pebbles. Don't get me wrong, I am all for it - I am just happy to live in a world where you can read stuff like this.

For the curious among you, here is the abstract:

The shapes of flat pebbles may be characterized in terms of the statistical distribution of curvatures measured along their contours. We illustrate this method for clay pebbles eroded in a controlled laboratory apparatus, and also for naturally occurring rip-up clasts formed and eroded in the Mont St.-Michel bay. We find that the curvature distribution allows finer discrimination than traditional measures of aspect ratios. Furthermore, it connects to the microscopic action of erosion processes that are typically faster at protruding regions of high curvature. We discuss in detail how the curvature may be reliably deduced from digital photographs.

Also, a photo of pebbles and stuff, taken at the Bambouzairie in the Cevennes.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Gratitious Nudity

This blog has been far too long without any naughty pictures to corrupt the young 'uns. Therefore, and without (much) ado (I just looked it up, ado comes from at do , which simply meant to do in the dialect of norse-influenced areas of England in the 13th century), Albert (who supervised my Master's Thesis, together with Ane) and me bathing in Kosciuszko National Park, Australia.
Unrelated note: It's a shame that Blogger does not support Opera properly, so that I had to start Internet Explorer (blech!) to get the photo to stay at the left-hand side.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


I did say I would post three times today and voilà, here is the third. This is the river Tarn, near Milleau, France. Where the highest bridge of the world currently stands. The tallest pier is 343 meters (easy to remember, 73) high. I took the picture in 2005, with my old Minolta Z1.

Warning Signs

When I was strolling into the lab this morning, I suddenly stopped and noticed the warning signs on the door. I honestly never had before, though I have been here for almost a month now.

While somebody who doesn't regularly work in laboratories might stop and take notice when he sees a yellow, triangular sign, they are so ubiquitous in laboratories that you just stop noticing them. Which of course drives the whole concept of warning signs ad absurdum. I could happily stroll into a lab with deathly radiation, never noticing the green, toxic vapours billowing between my feed, grab a handrail with live electricity and joyously partake from various poisons in interestingly shaped beakers, just because I did not notice the gazillions of warning signs telling me to run for my life.

What makes the situation even worse is almost all of these signs warn of hazards that a) only happen if somebody fucks up monumentally, such as opening a Silane bottle, or playing water-fight with acids, and b) won't help in any case if a) happens, because if the Silane bottle bursts next to me I will be burning before I have a chance to look at the warning sign.

The real reason these warning signs are plastered everywhere has nothing to do with safety, and everything with litigation. If I die screaming with my hand caught in the RF feed of my reactor, the administration can happily point to any of the dozens of warning labels and say: "We told him to be careful".

So what do we scientist do if something is really dangerous? Well, we stick a note on it, of course. Everybody will ignore a yellow sign, but if I see a hand-written note saying: "Don't touch!", I will take notice, viz. run away screaming. And if it's really, really dangerous? Then there will be a blinking red light somewhere. Probably. If the bulb hasn't burned out.

Just don't go into any labs alone, ok?

Trip to Trübbach

Evil me did not publish any blarticles on either Monday nor Sunday. I can offer no excuses, but will try to make it up by a deluge (well, three) blarticles today.

On Monday I went to Trübbach, a small village near Sargans, which in turn lies at the border of Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria. In Sargans resides the research facility of a company I am doing research for, but it is all Sekrit and if I would tell you, I would have to hunt you down, kill you and bury your body - before being hunted down myself. So I wont.

Since it was all so sekrit, I did not take my camera. Then I spent the rest of the journey gnashing my teeth and cursing my stupidity, because the weather was awesome, the mountains around Trübbach astonishing, and the view spectacular.

ALWAYS take your camera.

Also, I could have taken a picture of Alan, who possesses the astonishing skill of going to sleep minutes after he stepped onto the train, in a most uncomfortable-looking position (slumped down, head hanging forward, I still get a headache if I think about it).

Speaking of the train, I got to ride first class (I felt so important!) for the first time in my life, paid by the university. Not much difference to second class though – the seats are wider, but so are the behinds of your neighbours...

Now I know what experiments I will be doing in the next couple of weeks – I am pretty excited about it all.

link to google maps