Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Back from Annecy, where we had another stage international (i.e. training camp) for Võ Vietnam. No injuries to report, for once. Well, except to my dignity. Always remember to keep your guard up, I say. No photos either, because I was too busy training. Have a seal instead!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bollocks to this...

I'm off to Annecy, France.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Canon EOS 300D, EFS 55-250 IS, 1/800s, f/6.3, ISO 200

Thursday, November 27, 2008

5kg book haul

Evil, evil Amazon had this 20% off for Swiss customers deal. 'Nuff said.

I got Anathem (which I have already pirated read, but need to own), the first two books of Hamiltons new Void trilogy and two of Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos-novels. I've read his Jhereg in French, and originally planned to read the others in French too, but I am feeling lazy at the moment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Salad and Seafood and Balsamico

Quick but good: Spaghetti di Mare.

But the real star of this yesterday's meal was the salad, more specifically the dressing. A while back, in a brief attack of insanity, I bought this bottle of aceto balsamico. It was on sale, 50 % off, and still cost about 25 francs. And it only contained 250 ml of dark, acidic goodness. "What in the world was I thinking?" I muttered (not thought, because clearly I wasn't - the question was rethorical) to myself when, back home, I put my new vinegar next to his much bigger and cheaper brother.

A couple of days ago said big bottle finally ran out, and I made myself a salad with the expensive stuff. "Holy sh..," I mumbled through the salad greens in my mouth, while stuffing them in like a half-starved cow in a lettuce field, "I make a mean dressing." And I do, only usually not that good. I put the incident off to chance, but when I made some more salad the next day, the same heavenly sensations assaulted my chile-damaged taste-buds. Which is how I found out how good balsamico can taste. Since then I have nourished myself via green leaves drenched in what can only be the black blood of mother earth. Well, with a side-order of seafood for yesterday. And I have been eyeing the expensive bottles of olive oil on the shelves of my local supermarket.

I can't wait for the next sudden attack of insanity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fame and Glory are Mine!

Yes, I am the winner of the world-famous annual EPFL PhD-hike photo contest. Now don't rush me girls, you can hug me in turns.

It wasn't easy, conditions were less than optimal: a horde of sixty PhD students rampaging over the mountainside, getting into my field of view, complaining if a photographer stopped to take a shot, stealing the best vantage points. And the competition was ferocious! Why, nine people entered the photo contest, nine!

Anyway, it is the first photo-contest I entered, and I won (a bottle of wine and immortal fame in the EPFL publication "Flash"), so there.
Oh, and here is the winning photo, entitled imaginatively "Magic Mirror":

(Canon EOS 300D, EF-S 55-250mm IS @ 109 mm, f/5.0, 1/1000 s, ISO 200)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Neal Stephenson: Anathem

I have been a Neal Stephenson fan for quite some time - since I started with Snow Crash and Diamond Age a couple of years ago. I also enjoyed Cryptonomicon immensly. Then I read Quicksilver, the first book of the Baroque Cycle. Then I slogged through Confusion, got bogged down, and raised my mud-covered hand to put it back on my bookshelf, where it still stands besides the System of the World, which I never even started. For some reason, the same qualities that made me love and reread Cryptonomicon - the meändering style, the complex story, the many characters (oh, what lovely characters, Jack, l'Emmerdeur, simply brilliant) - were somehow too present. Instead of adding to they took away from the story, they distracted me from the tale. Each time I was totally immersed into a storyline, the point of view would switch, leaving me stranded. It reminded me of the trouble I have had with Umberto Eco: I love Focault's Pendulum, but I never managed to finish The Island of the Day Before, even though I have tried multiple times.

Anyway, with Anathem Stephenson is back in style, and back to writing Science Fiction. The book embodies the best Science Fiction can be: A big idea, a gripping yarn and marvelous characters. It tells of a society where all scientists have retreated into convents, and are forbidden from practicing most of the technical sciences. No genetic manipulation, no computer science, no experimental physics, for thousands of years. Instead, they are sequestered into four different orders, which only have contact with one another and the outside world for ten days ever one, ten, hundred or thousand years, respectively. The reason for this is to preserve knowledge, even if the secular world descends into barbarism.

But as weird as this may sound, this is not the novel's Big Idea. Or rather, it is only one of several big ideas.  Another has to do with quantum physics and consciousness, and with the Anthropic Principle, and yet another with the viability of long-term organisations and planning. The book is fairly brimming with ideas, yet they do not detract from the story, only add to it. And - quite surprising for a story that reminded me of Eco's The Name of the Rose for the first few chapters - there is also space ships and EVA-battles in earth's orbit.

Did I like it? Well, let me put it this way: I read Anathem on my iPhone (which incidentally makes for quite a good ebook reader) after having it, ahem, acquired on the internet. I just placed an order for it with Amazon though, because this is a book I just have to have sitting on my bookshelf. Right next to the Baroque Cycle, come to think of it. Maybe I should try and have another go at that.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holy cholesterol, Batman!

Yesterday I finally broke down and bought a toaster. I have been thinking about in on and off for a year - not a decision to take lightly! - especially since space in my apartment is at a premium, and not to be squandered with frivolous purchases. But then I saw a toaster on offer for 20 CHF, and pounced. This, then, is the result: the artery-clogging croque monsieur à la maison!

Made of toast, egg, cheese and bacon, of course. Unfortunately I didn't have any Camembert or Roquefort at home, so I had to do with plain, ordinary Vacherin.  To make up for it, my toaster is one of those that pinch the toast between two concave forms - as a result, none of the fat of the bacon is lost. My heart will thank me for it, I am sure.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

iBrick Mk. II

A couple of weeks ago I quickly cobbled together the iBrick, and external battery for my iPod mini. It was ridiculously heavy, but powerful enough for many hours of musical goodness.

Meanwhile I have graduated to an iPhone, which has it's own power-issues: Under heavy GPS, WiFi or 3G data usage, it's battery won't last the day. This called for a more protable form of the iBrick, the iBrick Mk. II

The design of the iBrick Mk. II revolves around a little chip called 7805 SR-C, a variant of the well-known 7805 voltage regulator. It takes an input voltage of 6-35 Volts, and outputs 5 Volts. Only the 7805 SR-C does this with a ridiculous efficency of nearly 95%.

This is the circuit I dreamt up. The battery will consist of 8 AA rechargeable Ni-MH accumulators, wired in series. It delivers around 8 to 12 Volts, depending on it's charge, which the 7805 transforms down to the 5 Volts required by my power-hungry iPhone. Unfortunately, for some reason only known to apple engineers, you can't just have 5 Volts and ground on the USB connectors power pins. It also reads the data pins, and expects to see 1.8 Volts and 2.5 Volts on the D- and D+ pins respectively. So we have to add a voltage divider network, consisting of three 270 kOhm and one 180 kOhm resistors.

All the components lined up below the circuit drawing:

From left to right: Two 4x AA battery holders, a female USB-A connector, a contact for the batteries, a switch, the 7805 SR-C, and resistors. Below the little Cassis-box that I will use as an enclosure.

First thing to do was prepare the battery holders:

 The two holders were soldered together in series, and held together by some masking tape I had lying around. I had to cut up the battery connector for it to fit.

Next up: Soldering together the voltage divider network:

Think yourself lucky that you can't see the actual solder below. It's been a long time since I have soldered much, and the results weren't pretty. The five wires are: Voltage supply (pink with black stripes), +5 Volts (pink), ground (black), 2.5 Volts (green) and 1.8 Volts (blue).

Putting everything into the enclosure:

No, I did not leave the positive leads uncovered - no short circuits in something that will be connected to my iPhone, thank you very much! They are covered in transparent resin, since I neglected to filch some shrink-tubes from the lab. Later on I also covered them with tape, just to be sure.

Aaand here I proudly present: The iBrick Mk. II, charging my iPhone! Ok, time for some rough calculations. The iPhone's battery is 1150 mAh, at 5 Volts. If I use 3000 mAh Ni-MH accumulators in my iBrick, I'll have 3000 mAh, but at 9.6 Volts! Since I am converting at nearly 95% efficiency, that means I have an equivalent of more than 5000 mAh of juice avialable. Plus it's small enough to fit into my pocket! Well, if it is a large one. I'll let you know how it turns out in reality.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Costly Ceramic Callously Cracked

If you are a regular reader, you might remember me blogging about an expensive Macor-ring I got from the workshops back in march. Yeah, well, I blew it up today.

When you work with plasma, you tend to forget the humongous amount of energy you can pump into a very small area when something goes wrong. While this is more or less what my thesis is all about, I nevertheless did not check if the reactor was really pumped down before I adjusted the matching. This includes driving the electrode with about 1500 Volts for a moment.

If you for some reason only switched on the roughing pump, the reactor will be at an pressure of about 7 mbar - perfect for a hollow cathode to ignite in a cornder. Subsequently, all 300 Watts of power will be concentrated in an area of about half a square centimeter. Which will then get hot enough to melt metal and crack ceramic - a thousand Euros worth of it in this instance.

Oh well, the price of progress...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Waxing poetic over the iPhone

I am still happy about my iPhone. I would even go as far as to say I am still ecstatic about it, weren't it for the sheer silliness of being ecstatic over a piece of silicon and plastic. That being said, I am still ecstatic about it.

First of all, the interface is so slick. It's not perfect - there are some things that are missing: it's sometimes awfully inconvenient that there is no multitasking. You can't, for instance, have your GPS tracking program running while reading an ebook (The iPhone makes an excellent ebook reader. Not sure if you'd be able to read them in the glaring sun on the beach, but in the current gloom it woks just fine). And there is no cut-and-paste, which makes entering URL awfully inconvenient.

But!  You never feel lost (GPS!) or confused. Nearly everything is intuitive, or at least easy to remember. And then there are the little things, like that the music you've been listening to shuts off automatically when you remove the headphones, instead of blaring over the speakers.

But most of all, I am so happy about having a 3G phone. It just feels so utopic to whip out your iPhone and update your Facebook page while sitting under a tree. In the rain. Well, hypothetically sitting under a tree if it weren't raining, which it is. Or showing your friend that the Dow Jones is still nosediving during lunch (not that you'd need an internet connection for that). All things I don't really need to be able to do, but which are just so much fun! I am even considering joining Twitter - not because I think that it is in any way interesting or because I have so much interesting stuff to say - only to be able to justify logging in and posting something from, say, the middle of the street during my ride home. Which would most likely end up with me in the hospital, but hey! No problem! I could still update my blog with my iPhone!

I guess eventually it will all get old and boring - but don't hold your breath.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Concert: Killbody Tuning

Friday evening I was at the vernissage of Killbodytunings new album "French Hunter". I had a blast, but taking pictures at a concert is more difficult than it would seem. It also makes me lust for a fast fixed lens, like the Canon EF f/1.4 24mm USM. Unfortunately I don't have a thousand euros to spare right now, especially not after buying my newest toy.

Maybe I'll manage to hold out until I can afford a full-frame digital SLR, then I can buy a fast 50mm, those are cheaper ;)

Some more pictures can be found here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Toy toy toy

As you may have read here a few days ago, my behind proved stronger than my Motorola KRZR, something I didn't shed too many tears over.

Especially since I then decided to treat myself to a new toy:

I know I said I wouldn't, but...
 what an awesome toy! First of all, the fact that you can connect to the internet over the blindingly fast (well, when compared to GPRS)  3G network makes me feel like I am living in some kind of science fiction novel. Also, the interface is intuitive and just works, so I am actually using it. Furthermore, internal GPS + internet is the best thing since somebody combined sliced bread and bacon.
And then there are the 3rd party applications. I've already read a short story on it (Fritz Leiber's "Night of the Long Knives") via Stanza - something that was surprisingly comfortable.
Then there is Midomi, an application that will record a few seconds of a song you are listening to or humming yourself, and then query a database and tell you which song it is.

I am sure there are a gazillion more I haven't discovered yet...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Killbody Tuning

This evening I will be off to the Vernissage of Killbody Tuning at the Moultipass in La Chaux-du-Milieu. Killbody Tuning is the band of my friend and colleague David.

This will be the first concert I go to in Switzerland!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

iBrick followup

Here is my iBrick, happily charging up in my laboratory. It performed quite well, I got 12 hours plus of playback from it, and part of that was spent charging my power-hungry n800 internet tablet. Of course, compared to it's weight (about half a kilo) that is abysmal, but then it is a lead-acid cell and not some fancy lithium-polymer battery.

The only drawback is that my smart battery charger at home is to smart to properly recognise it as a 12 Volt battery when it has run flat - accordingly it refuses to charge. Hence the laboratory power supply method.

Now that I am not pressed for time, I will probably build some variation of the Minty-boost design for a more portable travel charger.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Veterans Day

Congratulations, you got maimed for your country.

Yesterday was Veterans Day in the United States, and the internet floweth over with teary-eyed exhortations to thank those selfsame veterans for their service.

I do not rightly understand that.

Reading all those articles, blog posts and cartoons, you would think that the USA has been under constant attack since World War II. It seems only thanks to all those veterans that the Americans got to keep their freedom and (more importantly!) their style of life. Only if I remember correctly, the last two wars America fought were started by her, as an aggressor. I doubt that turbaned Mujahedin would have overrun the States after 9/11, had they not defeated Afghanistan and Irak.

It is true, America has also fought quite a number of "just" engagements, if you so will. The NATO-actions in Ex-Yugoslavia, the second gulf war about Kuwait, Somalia and others I approve of wholeheartedly. Many others although, not the least of which is the Vietnam war, were, if not unnecessary, then certainly not the only thing standing between America and her (mostly red) foe. And some were, so I suspect, mainly fought because of misplaced pride.

Furthermore, since the end of conscription in the United States in 1973, all personnel in the armed forces are volunteers who knew what they were getting into when they signed up. So you can honour your veterans all you want, but I for one think the world might be a better place if there were not that many of them to go around. Perhaps the administration of President-elect Obama would consider to abandon the "Hulk smash" 'tude?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Requiem for a KRZR

Sleek and blue,
your promise great -
none of it true,
I found out to late.

Your menus were,
a nightmare blur,
haunt dreams of mine.

From time to time,
you'd reset with glee
and then you'd chime
to inconvenience me.

Then you would,
refuse to connect,
because you could,
is what I suspect.

Maliciously I sat,
on you  anew and anew -
at last you have cracked
good riddance to you!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back from Paris

Visited A&A in Paris - my supervisors from back when I did my master's thesis in Canberra. Had an excellent time catching up, except when I got all moody because I still miss my ex.

Apart from a bit of self pity it was really cool though. In Paris it's the month of the Photo right now, so we went and visited a number of small galleries in the quartier Marais. I didn't know that you can ask for (and apparently also get) 4000 Euro for a photo!

 Also I had much fun with the twin daughters of A&A: Here one of them gets fed by yours truly in the Tuileries. She looks a bit disgruntled - probably because I was too busy looking into the camera to aim properly.

Next is some statues of the Louvre who were catching the evening sun - probably the reason Louis XIV put them there - magnificent!

Lastly an amazing Didgeridoo-playeress (Didgeridooess? Digeridess?) in front of the Centre Pomidou.

Oh, and even more lastly, here is an amazing video A&A made of their twins - they were born prematurely, weighing only about 1kg. This video (set to Radiohead) does an amazing job of communicating some of the things you would go through as a parent - it's not your typical boring "proud-parents-present-their-spawn" thing, and moreover it is only four and a half minutes long!

Friday, November 7, 2008

iBrick: external battery for the iPod

My ancient iPod mini only gets about 2 hours of battery life. A problem, since I'll be in the TGV for four hours today. The only solution: Quickly cobble together an external battery.

Thankfully I already head everything I would need: A 12 V, 1.2 Ah lead-acid cell for the power. An USB car-charger to convert the 12 volts down to an iPod-friendly 5 volts.
A switch, for convenience.

I connected them all up, and then used my friendly purple electrician's tape to hold everything together.

Success! How long will it last? Well if we assume a current draw of about 150 mA for the iPod (a number I just made up - but it shouldn't be too unreasonable), it eats 150mA*5V=0.75 Watts. My iBrick has 1.2 Ah at 12V, which is 14.4 Watthours. The car-charger is probably using an LM7805 chip or something similar, so we can assume a 90% efficiency for the voltage conversion. (14.4*0.9)/0.75=17.28 - about 17 hours. Good enough for me!

Bollocks to this...

I'm off to Paris for the week-end.

519 km - only four hours by TGV!

(image: wikipedia)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Even more photos from the phd hiking trip

See also here and here.

First, the Saut-du-doubs. The guy trying for a quick dip is my collegue - thankfully he could restrain his enthusiasm before I had to finish the trip with a bad conscience for letting him drown.

What? The water was cold, you know.

Next up: same motive, nicer shot. Nothing against you, Lukas, I just had a bit of time to think about composition ;)

Holy cow! They just stood there, staring at us. They had made a fire; it was all burnt down, just hot coals perfect for a barbecue. They looked hungry.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Gender Segregation

They did not use to fool around with gender segregation here in Lausanne. One door for boys, one door for girls. A wonder there is no fence in the middle! Maybe there was, and it got removed to make place for the car park.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I needed some new shades:

Big, to protect my eyes from rain, snow and hail on my mad downhill dashes on my way to the EPFL in the morning.
Not too dark, because said morning will be fairly darkish soon (Yrch!).
Orange, just because.

I ordered a cheapish pair from veloplus, and they weren't as hideous as I had feared.

Here is the transmission spectrum:

 The luminance transmittance is about 45% - I hope that will be bright enough.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sparrow at Starbucks

This little fellow was stealing sugar at the Starbucks in Lausanne. Caught him on Sunday when I was refreshing my memory on why I don't go to Starbucks. Café au Lait CHF 5.80? Are you folks insane? That is more than a pint of lager, even in Lausanne!