Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It's Been a While . . . .

This week is the half-way mark for my stay in Switzerland. I can't decide if I'm half-finished or half-started. I have been saving up things to say for the last few weeks and that's why there were no posts. I have some brief travel stories and some musings on the life of a research engineer. Enjoy!

First Snow (!!)
Three weeks ago, I took a day trip on a gorgeous Sunday to Hoch-Ybrig. I had not heard of this resort from any travel guides and have since had trouble locating it on Google maps. I guess it's not a huge tourist destination, but it was a fabulous trip. I went with a couple of PhD students from my lab and some of their friends. The peak we climbed is in the foothills (1700 m) of the Alps, and you get a great view of the surrounding mountains and valleys from the summit. The weather was perfect--the first snow of the season had fallen days before, but the temperature climbed to near 20 by the end of our hike. Everything was dusted white in the morning, but it was still pleasantly warm. There was no fog and few clouds; you could see mountains in Germany! Below is the group during our lunch break.
St. Galen
Two weeks ago, I decided to make a day trip to see St. Galen and Lake Constance. Having been there for a short afternoon, I think I need to go back. It was pretty foggy on the lake (in Rorschach), but from the hill above the city you could see much of the lake and some white-tipped peaks poking though the clouds in the south. I missed opening hours for just about everything in St. Galen, but I managed to be in the old city right at sunset. I need to go back when I have time to try the bratwurst.

Basel and the Jura
Last weekend I decided to start exploring to the west. I spent Saturday hiking around Wasserfallen (a gondola ride), south of Basel. The weather was a bit cool, but otherwise gorgeous. The landscape there reminds me very much of the Ozarks, but on a larger scale. There were several times when I felt like I was back home hiking in the hills around my house. Highlights: I saw the ruins of a fort from--if I remember correctly--the 14th century. That was nothing like home. I also walked through the highest individual farm in Basel county and a path that was once used to avoid the customs post in Reigoldswil. Also, the waterfall the gondola is named for is not one but a series of cascades that the path follows quite closely. I love hiking with the sound of water in the background.

On Sunday, I visited Fondation Beyeler in Basel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The permanent collection is mostly modern art, and what a collection it is! I saw some major players, but I was also introduced to Anselm Kiefer for the first time, for which I am greatful. They also have an exhibition going that features art from and about the city of Venice. If I get the chance, I'm going back. I'll leave it at that.

Work, work, work
Yes, I do work. In fact, I work quite a lot. The last few weeks have been . . . busy. Every day, I get a little more insight into the life of a research engineer.

You see, most of my work experience has been in industry. I've seen--if not done--many of the things that your typical process or design engineer does on a daily basis. At school, we learn to use existing processes, existing equipment, and rarely do we get to see the innovative side of our field. I knew that graduate studies would focus more on discovery, and applied for my job here with this in mind. I enjoy this application of engineering; I feel like I use both sides of my brain. That's a rare pleasure, and one that I imagine most people don't have at work. I think I will save a comparison between research and industry for a later post, and tell you a little about what I've been doing.

We finally got the calorimeter working, and I finish experiments about every day. Each one takes anywhere from four to twelve hours, and represents a significant investment of time and resources. This makes a successful run all the more satisfying, and a failed one all the more frustrating. We just got shiny new software to collect and process data, but apparently it's a little too shiny for our one-year-old apparatus. I'm still collecting data with the old package, which is time consuming, but fairly simple now that I'm used to it.

Oh, and the joys of data processing! Not only is it a special, nerdy high to see the stream of data flow across my screen, but processing is closely followed by Analysis (yes, capital "A"). At times, I feel like an alchemist. We have a pretty good idea of what is going on inside our tiny gasification reactor, but we can't be absolutely sure. With each experiment we mold our theory a little more, and we can explain most of the things we see. But not all. So, I go back to the lab to run more trials and tweak variables to get a clearer understanding of our microsystem.

While I wait for those long experiments to finish, I do more analytical work with our raw feed sample. In the last couple of weeks, I pulled out and dusted off at least half of the organic and analytical chemistry techniques I practiced at school. My professors would be proud. For the chemists out there, this includes TLC, liquid fractionation, and making solutions for ICP-OES and GC-MS. In short, big fun!

Coop's hosting a wine tasting in Zurich this week, and we're planning a trip this weekend. You'll probably hear from me again after that. Cheers!

- Joseph

Monday, October 6, 2008

I have been putting off posting because of my inability to come up with clever titles for my posts, so I may be forced to number them from now on...

As Joseph and Katherine mentioned, Atzmännig and Titlis were a lot of fun, and the pictures are on my flickr. My story differs from theirs in that I woke up Monday morning with a very sore throat and suspected it was going to be a heinous infection. I asked my coworkers about going to the doctor, and was told that here in Switzerland, you are charged by the time you actually spend with the doctor. I think this could be another benefit of affordable education- the doctors can charge less because they don’t have to spend the first 20+ years of their practice paying back loans they borrowed for medical school, but then again, I am not sure how exactly how expensive it would have been. Instead of visiting the doctor, I stopped at the pharmacy on the way home and told the Apothekerin/Miracle Worker I had some throat pain. She procured a delicious antidote with mild antibiotic/magic powers from behind the register. For 12 CHF, I halted the onslaught of bacterial minions and suffered only mild congestion for the rest of the week. I took it as an opportunity to determine whether this miracle could be attributed to Switzerland’s pharmaceutical/healthcare industry or even its treatment of drug addiction, but I haven’t put sufficient time into this research to have any conclusive findings. I did learn, however, that the purpose of blue lights in public restrooms is so heroin addicts can’t find their veins. The government (and the rest of the EU) prefers that those with drug addiction seek out medical help, but don’t hurt themselves or anyone else in the meantime.

Unassigned research aside, my time here at ETH has been great. Right now I am writing models to estimate the utility of a given vehicle based on categorized price and energy consumption, and subsequently the probability of a household’s purchasing a vehicle within the defined categories. I’ve worked through some of the kinks with the program (thanks to the help of some excellent PhD students) and have some preliminary results at this point. The data set I am working with includes mostly household socio-demographic characteristics, and not many vehicle characteristics, but there are still many potential models one can create. The results I have obtained so far don’t really explain much, so I am somewhat frustrated at the moment. For now, I will keep writing models until I find one that fits…

I went to Prague two weeks ago, but this post is getting really long, so I am not going to say much about it. But it was 1) Beautiful 2) Affordable and 3) Full of tourists, even in the off season. Finally, I went to Oktoberfest last weekend. This is no place for anyone who doesn’t like beer or crowds, and actually, if you are one of the many who does not have a ticket and has to pay for food and drinks in the tents, you have to keep ordering things or the waiters will encourage you to leave. I estimate that we should have been consuming 1 liter of beer every 2 hours to keep the waiter happy, but this was difficult for me.

Here is a picture of our group at Oktoberfest, including a crazy guy behind us...