Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider is "just down the road" from me here in Switzerland. Here is a very interesting presentation from one of the physicists about why they're bothering with this HUGE undertaking for the collider. I have a new co-worker from the office who used to work at CERN, but I suppose got tired of working with the crazy physicists (my words, not his) (go look in my LinkedIn profile). He's been doing a pretty good job of explaining the detector, how it works, how they built their computer network to do the job.

It seems to me that he left the more interesting job to come to my company, and I would have gladly traded with him. Gee, my office is only responsible for some of the most important computers on the Internet, but he's smashing atoms and watching the bits fly off.

Anyway, watch the video, I think Brian Cox does a really good job in explaining why this LHC is important, what they're doing, and he gives a brief lesson on particle physics and the "standard model"

If that's too serious for you, here's a checklist of the CERN scavenger hunt that my friend Chris invented when he and his wife visited CERN at its biennial open-house:

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Day Trip to Liechtenstein


Yes, there is a country between Switzerland and Austria. It is absolutely tiny. When compared with the District of Columbia, Liechtenstein boasts only 160.4 km² (62 sq mi) and over half of that is too mountainous to be inhabitable. The size of Liechtenstein is just a little bit larger than Dulles Airport's property. Compare these two maps: Dulles Airport and Liechtenstein.

So, What does one do in Liechtenstein? We wondered the same. There was absolutely no preparation for this trip whatsoever. We just forced the kids into the car and set off. I told the GPS for "City Center of Vaduz (the capital), please", and off we went. This was to take only 45 minutes, and seemingly half of that was headed down the big hill that we were living on.

We showed up in the city center of Vaduz. As far as capital cities go, this was a pretty small affair; but you shouldn't be that surprised that the city center of this tiny country wasn't a major metropolis. We showed up around lunchtime, and waited forever at a table right across the street from

The entry into the country was no challenge at all. There are no border crossing points between Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The border of Liechtenstein and Austria is administered by the Swiss Customs Agency. Liechtenstein has no army, and holds only 34,000 people (that is about as many people as are in the City of Manassas). If there is no border challenge in entry, how does one get the country's stamp in his passport? In order to get your passport stamped, you actually have to visit the tourist office, and pay 3 Francs for each stamp.

We paid for the tour-train; a cheesy tourist truck with wagons that is shaped like a train. These sorts of things appear to be universal. We got a tour of the city and got to see such things as "The Red House" (They couldn't come up with a better name?), the Vineyards that are owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein (which are right next to the Red House). The castle on the top of the hill is the residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein, and is not open to the public. We got a bunch of pictures to share. I'm sure many of you will never have the opportunity to visit this country.


Photos from Week In Austria

I forgot to include the pictures from the week.

Urlaub am Bauernhof

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Urlaub am Bauernhof

I have been working some very long hours at work lately. This has been painfully noticed by the children, who may have even forgotten who I am. I would leave the house at the same time they went off to school, and for a few weeks, I would get home after everybody had gone to bed. (Sometimes even Stacy!)

Now that the kids go to a Swiss school in Rüfenacht, they follow the Swiss schedule for time away from school. You may not be aware of how differently the Swiss school system handles vacation time:
  • Christmas: Two weeks
  • Sportwoche: One week in February or March, I think this is set up so that the Swiss families can go to the ski slopes together one last time.
  • Spring Break: Two weeks after Easter, three weeks for the kindergarteners.
  • Summer Break: Five weeks starting on 4 July.
  • Fall Break: Three weeks starting early September.
Last year, I had to go on a trip for Fall break, but this was at the ISB -- it was not three weeks long, but still: WORK got in the way of a family vacation.
Christmas break, I didn't take any time off, Sportwoche was spent with me on the phone all the time, as I was on-call that week. (And the company got its money's worth out of me!) Stacy made well sure that I took some time off work during Spring break, with all sorts of threats!

As you may or may not have imagined, it is quite hard to overcome the inertia of four kids and get everybody out on a vacation. Most hotels won't let you crowd all of those kids onto a hotel room floor, and some insist that we book THREE rooms instead of two. A hotel for three rooms anywhere in Europe can get quite expensive very quickly. Especially with the terrible exchange rate for the US Dollar versus the Euro (1.58 USD per EUR).

Stacy found a nice compromise by finding a vacation at a barn. No, we are not sleeping in haystacks, and we're not shoveling manure. This is a bread and breakfast sort of affair, at a barn in Austria. The organization that puts together all of these establishments on-line is called "Urlaub am Bauernhof" which means "vacation at the farm" This is the first vacation I have taken with the family in a long time, the last time was probably a beach vacation in 2006.

The logistics involved in moving all of these people to a neighboring country, not to mention all of our luggage, can only be mastered by the "Urlaubschef" (Vacation chief) Stacy. There was not enough storage in our car to bring all of our luggage, along with all of our kids in one trip in the car. The trip is about 3 and a half hours by train or by car. Once we folded up all the seats in the car, and loaded all of the luggage into the hatch-back. There was only enough room for two occupants (positions driver and shotgun), so the rest of the kids had to go to Austria by train.

Since I have a General Abonnement (I ride all public trains in Switzerland for free) , along with some "Junior Karte" (Kids with paying adult ride for free); we all made way by train; leaving Stacy and Jake to go by car. The GA does not pay for fares outside of Switzerland, so once I crossed the border at Sankt Gallen, I had to buy a 14 CHF ticket to Bregenz, Austria. This is an extremely cheap way to cross into Austria! 14 CHF to transport 3 kids and an adult from Bern to Austria? The GA is great.

Stacy went by car, Jake "navigating" in the right seat. On the way, Jake attempted (repeatedly) different ways to annoy his mother. He would sing awful songs in the worst singing voice he could muster. "Are we there yet?" But mostly the "dumb noises and incessant repetition" Mission accomplished.

The kids and I arrived at the Bregenz Bahnhof at around 3:30. As Joey was getting off the train, he shouted "We're in Australia now!" By then, Stacy had made it to the house and unloaded the luggage by herself. The kids spent time on a great playground right on Lake Constance, so it was not really difficult to let Stacy go to the grocery store in time. In time? You ask. On a Saturday afternoon, all of the grocery stores close at 5 pm, and don't open again until Monday morning. Going out to eat 4 times with the weak dollar could have easily made this cheap vacation very expensive!

Stacy called me to coordinate. We agreed that groceries were vital, so she went to the grocery store for some desperately-needed shopping. The kids were untiring, and continued to play on the playground with great enjoyment. This playground boasted a zip-line, an excellent tire swing, and a round-about.

Right away, I felt at home -- the kids on the playground spoke High German for the most part (I have a very hard time communicating with Swiss kids, as they generally don't speak High German yet) . There were a bunch of kids on the round-about, who responded "extremely fast! (Ja ganz schnell!)" when I said "Shall I spin you fast? " I spun these kids on the roundabout so fast that I actually made one sick. (how awesome). This is my kids' favorite toy at the playground, something not found in the US, so going too fast is not possible.

At the farm, the hosts had manufactured a hutch for the rabbits to live in for our stay. When Stacy asked them if there was room for them, the hosts responded, "Oh we can come up with something for them". There was plenty of grass for the bunnies to nibble on, and a place to hide when the local critters came up to look into the cage to see what's inside.

At the farm, we were greeted with the friendliest dog I have ever met, named Lucy. She had a habit of tripping us as we were trying to walk. The dog would just sit down right at your feet, and rest her head on your thigh, saying "pet me! pet me!" She would often just run up to you and lay on her back for you to rub her tummy. Really: The nicest dog I have ever met! Even Jake the caninophobe wasn't afraid of Lucy.

The hosts were pleased to find out that we speak German, and insisted that I get a chance to practice my German a bit. To make it easier on her, I spoke only German with her after the initial meeting. The husband, the farmer, did not ever speak anything to me other than the local Austrian dialect (I didn't get its name), which wasn't too terribly difficult to decode; given my Bärndütsch training. The accent wasn't so thick, and many of the words were the same.

Where was this place? It was on top of a mountain right on the lake shore of Lake Constance, the Bodensee -- The view was pretty spectacular. This picture here is taken from the top of the hill looking down on the Rhein as it empties into the Bodensee. It wasn't that great looking in pictures -- much better in life.

They had a pair of ponies for Cecilia to ride (which she did many times)

The weather ranged from spectacular to miserable. Being on top of that mountain, we really got to experience the difference between "rainy day down low" and "snowing at the tops of the mountain" The bunnies, living outside in their new shelter didn't mind; they like to play in the snow, dig in it, and shake it off of their bunny heads. Unfortunately, the rest of the family found its self hiding indoors on the snowy day we had. Fortunately, there was wireless access, and some of the boredom was driven off by the temptations of the Internet. There was cable-tv in the house, but TV here really doesn't interest us; and Austria is much the same.

We drove into Germany to find a huge shopping mall. It was just like home in so many ways. As far as I can tell, they do not have huge shopping malls like they have in Northern Virginia. On our way through Germany, we crossed Lake Konstanz (Bodensee) by ferry, to visit the city of Konstanz, on the other side. At Konstanz, we visited the "Sea Life Museum"

In the next article, I will describe our day trip to Liechtenstein.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Biking in Switzerland

22 March 2008 --
A few weekends ago, I took another long bike ride down the Aare valley. This time, I brought along a camera, and took some pictures along the way. I set out on a beautiful Saturday morning, with a light jacket, a water bottle, and a camera. The first part of my trip was down the road to Gümligen, where I was met with a stiff, cold headwind. I wondered what I was getting myself into, and debated turning around to go home.

I went through Gümligen down to the other side of Muri, near the local Media Markt. I found a nice little "Wanderweg" down the hill to the Aare river. I stopped to take in the breathtaking scenery, and snap a few pictures of the Aare valley, very clearly able to see the Bern-Belp airport and Belpberg.

These photos were taken at the location as represented by the northern-most camera icon
"View of Belp and Belpberg" on the map linked at the very bottom of this posting.

As I traveled further down the path, I found this lovely little park bench next to a water fountain, where I filled up my water bottle, and read a historical sign describing the construction that was done around the riverbank to tame it, in the 1850s. After a short break, I was on my way again. I headed south, this time, trying to see if the eastern bank of the Aare was as friendly to bicycles as was the western bank.

When I got down to the riverbank, I took a short break to snap a couple shots of the river. I bet that this river would be great fun to swim in during the summer time. In fact, lots of people do swim in this river. It is clean enough, and although fast moving, there are plenty of places to pull over and get out.

I found this cool little island accessible only by foot traffic on the path. There was no bridge, so I I dragged the bike along the stone that were submerged just a centimeter under the flow of the creek. When I got to the other side, I did not find much of interest, but a few campfires burned out, a small island of untamed wilderness, and a little bit of trash that has washed ashore from the river.

After getting my feet very wet on the return across the creek, I set back on the path, going south, toward Thun.

It was such a warm and sunny day by then, I was really excited to peddle briskly down the path. I passed lots of people, making sure to ding before I passed the strolling people -- all Swiss bikes are required to have a bell for just these circumstances. Nobody took it personally, and they always replied "Bitte" when I called out "Enshuldigen Sie, bitte!" I called Stacy when I thought it would be a great idea to have her drag out the kids for us to cook out in one of the many parks along the way.

I had to stop again to get a few excellent shots of the Alps from my bike path.

By the time I had met up with Stacy, it had gotten cold and grey. The light jacket that I was wearing had gotten me downright COLD. The kids threw rocks into the river near Münsigen, while I tried to start a fire to cook lunch. With not enough kindling, not enough matches, and wood that just didn't want to get lit, we eventually gave up on trying to cook any food.

Stacy and the kids retreated from the cold and drove back to the house, not only disappointed that I had dragged them out of the house, not only disappointed that I couldn't get the fire started, but also disappointed all-around.

I rode my bike down to the Wichracht train station , and made my way home by train. On the bike ride to the station, it was snowing heavily. Having never been to the city before, I was lucky that there were many signs directing me to "Bahnhof"

We got home and cooked the wursts on the outdoor wood grill. It was snowing heavily by then. The two who enjoyed the snow the most were the rabbits, whom we let out into their "play area" outside the front door of the house. They dug in the snow, got some on their heads, shook it off, and then repeated the whole process.

Here is a map of the path, along with the locations of all pictures [Map]
Here are all of the pictures I took on that day [Pictures]

Another Valley Bike Ride

Have I mentioned that this country was made for bike riders?


RC Heli Rebuild

In the last article, I mentioned how I was about to rebuild my helicopter. The original heli had some serious design flaws, and I had started to grow out of the instability problems at high speed, the inability to fly in anything other than absolute dead calm, and the fragility of the rotor blades from withstanding any sort of impact whatsoever.

I go through rotor blades very regularly on this heli. Here is a picture of the original construction, with some battle-damage showing. Note the busted landing gear, the broken rotor blade. There are portions of the plastic fuselage that also broke off.

I was sick on Saturday, so I stayed in bed all day long. Near the end of the day, I was feeling better, but felt MUCH better when Stacy announced that my package of replacement pieces arrived.

I tore into the packaging like a kid at Christmas time. I managed to take a few pictures just in case I forgot how to reassemble the parts that I took off. The slideshow below shows the reconstruction steps.

This collection of new pieces did not come with any instructions. So for the most part, I had to figure out how the old helicopter worked well enough, and figure out where the new pieces fit together in the new approximate positions of where the old obsolete components were. There were a few instructions on how to assemble the rotor shaft, which had key information about where specific washers were, I suppose those washers were quite important.

I did make many mistakes in the reconstruction process.

The first mistake was where I missed a collar that attaches to the rotor shaft. This piece keeps the rotor shaft from sliding up and down, and keeps the two big white gears from grinding against the wrong pinions. I realized this mistake after getting everything assembled, and the only way to install this collar was to back out the whole rotor shaft. This cost about 45 minutes of small screws.

The second mistake I hoped to avoid by taking good pictures of everything on the old helicopter as I disassembled it. The electrical hookup of the motors I got mixed up. The motor for the top blade was hooked in backwards, so when I powered up the engines, both rotor blades spun the same way. And with so much torque coming in the same direction, the fuselage of the helicopter spun very madly in the opposite direction.

The third mistake I made simply is indefensible. It took a while to diagnose the problem though. The main symptom was the wild spinning of the fuselage, either full left or full right. I could have the heli on the ground with no engine torque; power up the engines slowly, and the fuselage does not spin. Increase the throttle a little tiny bit. Still OK. Not enough power to lift off. More. Heli spins to the right madly. Give it a little tiny tiny bit of left "rudder" and the heli spins madly to the left.

It took me a while to figure out that I had hooked up the motor for the left engine into the electrical hookup for where the right engine should go. I guess the onboard electronics got confused and the incorrect hookup caused a divergent negative dynamic stability problem. (Those are some 5 dollar words there).

Once I got all of these components hooked up, I did another hour worth of trimming and lengthening pushrods here, tweaking the "proportional" and the "gain" riostats. I finally got it flying pretty well. The first thing I noticed is that the controls were much more sensitive. I also discovered, by means of a few crashes, that the rotor blades are not indestructible, as I broke one of my new blades right at the blade root.

The evening of flying ended when I crashed it and the new rotor hub for the bottom blade broke. I suppose one of the disadvantages of super strong rotor blades is that the damage just moves to the rotor hub. I had no replacement rotor hub parts, so the flying was done until some more replacement pieces came in.

A very long week of waiting around and not being able to fly my heli dragged on. After a full week, a new box of pieces came in from Canada, I replaced the rotor hub for the lower blades, and the new refurbished heli flies a lot better than ever before.

After all the fixing, adjusting and correcting, finally I got this thing flying smoothly. After all the fixes, this thing flies like a dream. I wonder how long it will be for me to crash it and need new parts again. I started all this RC flying because the soaring season here in Switzerland is short compared to flying in Virginia. I have to start getting back to the airfield more often, especially now that Spring is here.