Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Weekend Warrior

I just went back through my pictures from the last couple of months. I think I'm getting dangerously close to taking the beautiful scenery for granted, which will make going back to the plains all the more painful. It was fun to look back, but it makes me want to stay even more (also dangerous).

I've made a point of traveling or doing something every weekend since I don't get out much otherwise. I said yesterday that this would be a travel post, so I'll share some stories and a few pictures.

Wine Culture
I'll start with my favorite(s). I've been meaning to go to a wine tasting at home for some time, i.e., since I turned 21. The problem is that these are usually smallish affairs with mostly local vintners. I don't know if the Europeans know just how good they have it, but I am well aware that we don't have anything approaching the selection they have, and in the grocery store no less. When I heard that Coop was holding an event in Zurich, I decided that I had to go. Last weekend, there was another, larger event (called Expovina--much, much larger) on boats on Zurichsee. The two events had very different atmospheres, but my impression after both was "Wow. That was awesome." Highbrow, I know.

I really don't know where to begin. The selection for both events was far larger than I could really grok, but I had fun trying to find the highlights. (4000 vintages is . . . mind-boggling). Most of the vendors spoke English and I enjoy learning about wine, so it was fun and educational. I had different company for both trips, so I got to sample others' preferences too. I'm partial to Spanish wine, myself, but I tried some excellent reds from Bordeaux and was impressed by the variety and quality of the offerings from Valais. I kept notes, and I plan on doing some internet shopping when I get home.

A wine tasting is definitely a multi-sensory activity, and I enjoyed people-watching almost as much as the wine. There are no pictures.

Jungfrau and Ballenberg
A while back, I spent a whole weekend exploring the area around Interlaken. In hindsight, I should have stayed there for a night, but on the bright side, I've been there by every available route! I had heard so much about Jungfrau and the train and the ice palace that I felt obliged to see it. If only I had realized how many other people have heard the same thing, and made the same decision, on the same day. . . Well, it was impressive. The ride takes ~2.5 hours from Interlaken, a large part of which takes place on a cogwheel train inside the mountain. That tunnel has been there since the turn of the 20th century. It ends at the highest rail station in Europe. In fact, just about everything at the joch is the "highest ---", including the highest confectioner, whose chocolate I obviously tried. It was brisk outside, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better view with so little effort. I hiked a little on the glacier, took in the ice palace, and had a leisurely lunch with a view of the longest ice river in the Alps. If you don't mind tourists, it's a great place to be. I would like to go back and try hiking part of the way. Some day.

The next day, I met Charlotte and a friend of hers to see the Swiss Open-Air Museum in Ballenberg. We went primarily to see some of the Bernese mountain dogs, whose owners were having a pow-wow or rally or what have you. The museum was more interesting than I expected, having based my expectations on similar museums I visited in elementary school. I felt a little guilty taking pictures there because they felt . . . posed. But they sure are pretty.

After the museum, we had time to run down to Meiringen to see the Aareschlucht. It was almost an afterthought, but I am so glad we made it. I've been to the tops of several mountains here, but the Aare gorge is the most dramatic thing I've seen. It's hard to visualize from a written description, and the light was bad so we had a heck of a time taking pictures. So, here's the website, and I recommend checking it out on Google Earth. I wish I could give you more, but all I have are these pictures.

Basel Again
I spent one Saturday in Basel, again at an art museum. Basel's Kunstmuseum is in a lovely old mansion near the river. The collection is quite large--I took three hours to see everything--and spans several hundred years of art history. Afterwards, I met a fried for dinner at the Uelibier brewery. If anyone has an afternoon to kill in Basel, I highly recommend one or both of these. (if you like process engineering, you can see part of the brewery from the restaurant)

Pilatus and Luzern

Finally, last weekend I finally got to the top of Pilatus. If you're adventurous, you can hike, but I/we opted for a trip on the steepest cogwheel railway in the world (nearly 45 degrees in some places!). It was a little cloudy, so we couldn't see the Alps, but we had a great view of the Luzern valley. One of the PhD students I work with was acting as tour guide that day. He told us about the Swiss military installation inside part of the mountain, and you can see the camouflaged ports for anti-aircraft cannons. We ate lunch on the Tomlishorn with the eager company of mountain choughs, intelligent and fearless black birds. We started feeding them bread, but soon they were eating cheese and trail mix, and one made off with the last of our salami. They must be used to hikers because they can catch morsels you toss to them. The other person in our party had one hopping from her shoulder to her wrist to get at bread she was holding.We shook them off and hiked back to the train. We headed back down and into Luzern.

Luzern is an easy city to see on foot. The main attractions in the old city are pretty close together and the walk from sight to sight is pleasant, with plenty of old buildings to look at. We passed an Indian music video filming on our way to the Lion Memorial. From there we went to the glacier museum (expensive ticket--note to self: carry student ID more often), where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Everyone had somewhere to be that evening, so we headed back when the museum closed. All in all, it was another lovely day in Switzerland.

This is probably enough material for several posts, but I needed to get this out of the way. I have plans for my last few weekends that should merit an additional post or two. We'll see.

Until then,

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Strictly Business

Jeepers, I didn't realize how long it had been since I last posted. Now that I think about it, time has really flown here. I have three weeks left now, and only two of those will be work. That means I have to start writing my report (joy!). It also means that I'm running out of time and need "get a move on," as we say back home. I guess I'll start and end with work this time.

New Data = Fun
I remember mentioning earlier that I enjoy the thrill of discovery and the puzzle-like side of experimental analysis. Well, I got to test my optimism last week. You see, over the last two-and-a-half months I have performed a series of time-consuming and somewhat expensive experiments with the calorimeter. For the most part, we assumed a fairly basic and well-known mechanism for what was happening within. (We have to assume because we do not yet have a way to verify this directly.) I slightly varied a few different parameters and things were going pretty much according to plan. Since the main purpose of these experiments is to develop a way to test new catalysts, I had to start with new materials eventually. I'll leave out most of the technical details, but suffice it to say the latest experiment was basically just to verify what we already "knew." Hah.

When I showed my mentor the new results, I believe the reaction was, "Oh no." It turns out we don't really know what's going on in there. This happened last week, and suddenly I was all too aware of my time constraints. We had already switched (at my suggestion) to longer experiments--we get better resolution, but each one now takes twelve hours. If I'm feeling really dedicated, or especially curious, I can finish two experiments in a day. (My time spent actually preparing each one is about half an hour--I get to leave it alone after that). So, at this rate, I can do at most 14 more experiments before I leave, since they all have to be repeated at least once. I really wish I had more time here since this has potential to be a simple, useful method that would be used to save time, money, and effort in the future.

Back to the optimism bit. As I see it, this could have gone one of two ways: depression or euphoria. OK, I wasn't exactly happy about this new development, but I felt like I had made the jump from a 100-piece cartoon puzzle to a 5000-piece based on a Pollock. There's so much more to look at now, so many things that need answers, so little time . . . . These last two weeks will be busy. I'm planning two overlapping courses of experiments that will hopefully end in similar and comprehensible results. If they don't, I feel sorry for--and a little jealous of--the person that picks up where I left off.

My other project, the analytical chemistry side, looks like it will be wrapped up this week or next. I had a bit of a breakthrough last week. It was a bit of an epiphany moment--I was reading some related literature and suddenly everything came together. Pieces falling into place, if you'll let me continue my earlier metaphor. There's more work to do in order to check and quantify everything, but it looks promising. I'm hoping there are no more "oh no" moments.

I have several travel stories to tell, but this post is long enough, and I need to go to bed so I'm rested for soccer tomorrow. So pictures and more later.

Until then,

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Armada Cup, Hoellgrotten, Liechtenstein, Rheinfalls

Time is flying by here- I just realized it's been about a month since my last post...there's too much going on all the time! Although Joseph might have seen snow in the mountains, as he mentioned in his previous post, last week we saw snow in Zurich! It was only October 29th, but yes, it did indeed snow- ok, maybe only for 2 hours, and it didn't stick, but still- it was enough to get everyone excited and starting to talk about ski season. Although I don't really know how to ski or snowboard, I think I might just have to try it before I go home. At the very least, then I can say, "Yes, I have been skiing on the world-famous Swiss Alps."

So, there are so many adventures to talk about, I'm not sure where to begin! I'll try to back-track for you...
Last weekend I had a rowing race on Saturday called Armada Cup. The race is not a typical rowing race, where the standard distance is either 6000 meters or 2000 meters, and boats are either raced side by side or one after another. No, this race was 9000 meters and over 300 boats all started at the same time!! The start was absolute Chaos- you'd think the rowers were trying to escape a giant sea monster at the other end of the lake! But the race was super fun and an experience. Only in Switzerland could there be a race like this... Some of the worlds best rowers came to this regatta though, which was really great to see. On Sunday I decided I hadn't gotten enough physical activity the day before, so I went for a walk/hike along the "Planetenweg", which runs from Uetliberg to the south along the mountain on the west side of the Zürisee. It was beautiful fall weather and the foliage was breathtaking! That's one of the best things about Zurich- if you want city life, you've got it, but if you want nature and mountains, it's just a tram ride away. :)

Two weeks ago I went to Höllgrotten, which is a cave close by to Zug, and toured around Zug for a bit. I think Switzerland has something for everyone- I mean, if you don't like mountains, there are lakes, if you don't like lakes, they have caves! Saw some interesting stalactites and stalagmites in the shapes of turtles and beehives... the walk/hike surrounding the cave was also very beautiful.

The weekend before that I went to Liechtenstein, the smallest German speaking country! I have interned at the Embassy for the Principality of Liechtenstein in Washington, DC before, so I was more than excited to finally get to see the country. Charlotte came along too, along with a new friend of ours, Alison, who is in Zurich on a Fulbright grant. We thought we would do a nice little hike to take advantage of the great weather...well, this little hike turned into a death march by the end! We hiked for over 7 hours!! We took a bus up to Gaflei, which was great, since it appeared the bus took us 3/4 of the way up the mountain...but we were fooled. There was still much more to climb and hike. We didn't mind though, since the views were absolutely stunning and incredible! We made it to the Fürstensteig, then over to the 3 Schwestern, then continued around the 3 Schwestern to Planken, (crossing into Austria while we were descending), and finally back down to Vaduz. The hike took so long that we didn't have time to see much else, and we were too tired anyways. But at the top, ohhh it's all worth it!! Mountains as far as the eye can see!! It was so stunning that it almost seemed fake. The next day we were all pretty sore, but I would hike those mountains again any day!

I've also been to the largest waterfall in Europe, the Rheinfalls, located close to Schaffhausen. Switzerland has many positive points, but I will say that the Rheinfalls just couldn't compare with our own Niagara Falls. Future trips are planned to Germany, possibly Italy...and another mountain...and skiing...and another rowing race...

And now, yes, the real reason I'm here: the research! I've collected enough data now to be able to look and make some connections about which additional data I might need, or which other process was missing. For example, after meeting with the professor and a PhD student, I realized I needed to go more into detail in the production process using biomass to produce hydrogen, as well as the partial oxidation process and the autothermal process. This all just takes some time understanding the actual process and how the efficiencies of these processes are actually calculated. But, I am making progress, slow but steady, and I'm confident that at the end of my time here I will have contributed to the overall project in a positive way. (And perhaps have published something...)

Everyone here is extremely interested in the US election- more so than some Americans, I think! It seems to be one of the biggest topics of conversation- many people have asked me my opinion as soon as they learn I'm an American. The main train station even broadcasted the election results at 4am or so...

machs gut,

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Swiss Lacrosse

Yesterday I attended my first major lacrosse event in Switzerland, an indoor tournament in Bern, though I have attended a few practices with the Zurich lacrosse team since I arrived 2 months ago. At first we practiced at a nice school facility on Friday evenings. When the weather started to get a little too cold, practice was moved to Saturday afternoons at a field near the airport- about an hour away. Since we only play once a week, I don't really mind the travel, but this fact can seriously inhibit the development of the sport in Switzerland. I have come to expect to give up a whole afternoon for only 1 or 2 hours of play time with others. The women's game is played with 2 teams of 12 players (11 field, 1 goalie). The Zurich women's team consists of 5 players (including me), so I knew this tournament would be interesting.

I arrived in Bern at Wankdorf Sporthalle at 11:30 for a one o'clock game but discovered immediately that there was not "Frauen" game listed on the day's schedule. When the other Zurich female players arrived (the men had been there since 8 am) we sat and waited for the tournament committee to add a game for us. In the meantime, we watched the men's teams play. Eventually, there were 14 females total from Zurich, Bern, Basel, and Wettingen. Then everyone argued about how to split up the teams so it would be fair, and in the end, the 7 17-18 year-olds from Wettingen ended up playing against the rest of us (21+ yrs). Such trivial arguing typically annoys me, so I made it a point to play more aggressively than usual since winning a pointless game seemed so important to everyone. We ended up winning, but I must confess I took some advantage of the referees' ignorance of women's rules and probably angered a few opposing players in the process.

The 5 men's teams in Switzerland all differed in skill but had one thing in common: professional looking uniforms. The teams are the Bern Titans, Zurich Lacrosse (no mascot from what I can tell), Wettingen "Wild", Basel Lacrosse, and St. Gallen Sunnyboys. They are all members of the European Lacrosse Federation (ELF), so I think Switzerland can expect to have a Men's National Team at some point. The Basel team's uniforms did not say Basel anywhere on them, but they had "IROQUOIS LACROSSE" emblazoned on the front. I laughed a little at this. Apparently their historically accurate name did not aid them, because when our game was over and the men had started their play-off rounds, the entire Basel team was drinking beer in the stands.
The women players correspond to the same geography, but there are too few in any location to make one team (and seemingly too few in all of Switzerland to make 2 teams), so it is definitely a growing sport. I asked about the future of women's lacrosse in Switzerland and was told that if they can become a member of the ELF, then it would take 2 years to have a women's national team. Apparently this is something they are working toward. I noticed that everyone here communicates the most common phrases in English while playing, though I still have trouble trying to communicate with the team when we are playing.

Finally, every athletic tournament has a snack bar, but I found yesterday's to be amusing and perhaps counterproductive. In addition to hot dogs and sugary cakes, there was an assortment of beer and liquor available throughout the day. I prefer the healthier option that I've enjoyed of late: playing catch before work with my colleague.

It will be interesting to see how a sport still considered in development in the US will continue to develop in Europe! I did not take any pictures of my own, but if I can find any that were taken on the internet, I will be sure to post later.