Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mission Sonoma

 Time for a domestic travel blog! And sheer boredom for anyone reading this from the bay area!

Took a trip to one of California's old missions while I was home, only an hour or so out of the bay area in Napa Valley. The mission was created by the Mexican army in the 1820s to defend against Russia, who was coming down the coast of California (up to Fort Ross). It was the northernmost mission in a line of missions extending all the way down the California coast making up the El Camino Real (at the time Alta and Baja California were either Mexican or Spanish owned depending upon the year you look at). They say that the missions were spaced at a distance from one another such that one could travel between two of them in a day. It comes across as a pretty simple adobe like building with ranch-style architecture. Small places like this remind me that there are really a ton of things in California to discover, from mountains, parks and deserts to tiny towns of interesting historical significance.
The back area of the soldiers barracks next to the mission

The small chapel 

Monday, January 9, 2012


Here are a few pictures from my trip to Paris in November. I am feel awfully spoiled in saying this, but, I really wasn't that impressed. It must be because 99% of Americans are immensely enthralled by the place (probably owing to the fact that it is one of the only places they been, and the amount of movies it has been in is innumerable), and I just think that there are plenty of other fabulous cities throughout Europe that get less credit that do certain things better. Vienna has better architecture. Spain has fabulous food. Copenhagen is more quaint. Stockholm has wider streets and great cafes. Koln cathedral is more impressive than Notre Dame. Belgrade has great nightlife. Amsterdam and Gent have more beautiful canals & rivers. All of the above are cleaner...... nonetheless, it is still a very nice city (brownie points for a fantastic subway system?). Like with any city, though, I would need to spend more time to get a good feel for it. The food, I must say, definitely lived up to the reputation. I stayed at my friend Aurelien's place, whom I met when he was living in Chicago. He has a friend who reviews restaurants, and thus recommended to us to a place with a great trade off of price/quality. Although my entree was about 23 euros, one of my priciest meals this past year, the duck was simply amazing. The escargot, also, was phenomenal. I guess my Paris-upset could have been easily predicted, as I seem to have a particular penchant for seeing places that nobody else really wants to go to (like..... Skopje, Macedonia....or Qatar!).

There it is folks.
Ah, hijacking monoliths from Egypt always makes for a much more beautiful plaza.

Mmm Crepes.

Requisite Eiffel photo.

Friday, January 6, 2012

IMFSE, Semester 3!

Per the usual, I must give a recap of my thoughts on each University in the program so far. Since I've finally lived in all three cities and attended all three Universities, I have been able to compare each place and University for the positives and negatives.

The first semester in Edinburgh still in ways was the hardest and most trying semester. Not only coming from not being a student for almost 4 years, but also taking classes in civil engineering of which I had a very poor background in, and being catapulted into a class requiring a higher level of prior understanding. Between the all classes so far in the program, finite element method in Edinburgh was definitely the most challenging and most stressful. But the professors in Edinburgh were great, and the availability and willingness of PhD students to discuss things was also very beneficial in taking your learning further. Of the three Universities it seems as if the most contact (and engagement and desire to engage) was from some PhD students at Edinburgh. In the extra tutorial sessions they really asked a lot of questions of use and engaged us in discussion. There weren't any labs (although I heard this year they went to fire fighting school...I am envious!), but I suppose that can be expected for first semester and needing to get the basics in f irst. Unfortunately, in Edinburgh, the semester was really short and tough, so in 3+ months I barely made it any other parts of Scotland! Not even Glasgow!

I must say, I think I enjoyed my time at Lund University the best. That is a culture and a University that really cares about their students and their well being, which definitely does in the end have an affect on how people learn, absorb, and study. From professors going out of way to pick students up at the train station, to being flexible and dynamic with schedule changes, to professor availability and variation in the learning methods. We had consultants, projects, labs, homeworks, company visits, and laboratory site visits. The professors were also very good for the most part. I  miss being able to place my coffee cup in the lobby of V-Building and not having to worry about anyone stealing it. And having good facilities for studying. And they have the most practical final exams. Edinburgh had 1.5 (or 2 maybe) hours exams that seemed to test your ability to write as fast as humanly possible (i.e you read a problem, know instantly exactly what to do, and simply do it...not good for people who take their time with things but still have a similar intellectual capacity, or just do things slowly). Lund had 4 hour exams that were pretty much geared to be difficult and completed in that time. Gent also had good exams this semester, that lasted 3-4 hours, usually with an oral exam. That was my first experience with oral exams. A pretty good idea, in fact, to get a general idea if the student has a clue of the bigger picture and the general concepts. Though, I have heard the exams in Gent the first semester were a mental endurance test.

So far in Gent, I am really loving the city the most. So much to do here. Beautiful city. And when not studying, there is an unlimited amount of delicious beers to sample! And fries to eat. And cities and places to visit nearby. It is also the first place I really have felt like I was part of a University again, which for me is an important part of studying and living in Europe. In Edinburgh I lived in a private apartment in a residential neighborhood and was pretty disconnected, in addition to being swamped with classes. In Lund we lived in student residences which was great, but many Swedish students were very reticent to accept new people as friends in their groups or to try to socialize a bit out of their bubble. But here in Gent, everyone is pretty inviting and friendly, from Belgians to the international students living in the student housing. Classes also are, for me, probably the most interesting & varied thus far. There are several really great professors (they really just get the skill that is teaching, in addition to knowing their stuff), and a few that are mediocre, one simply was not good (i.e I learned more watching paint dry in class and then reading the notes at home or googling the subject ...though it was evident this professor was incredibly smart). Also a good job has been done to have company and laboratory visits, and to incorporate various types of teachers, a mix of academics and consultants, which really is beneficial in order to get a better overall perspective of things. Lund also had a good mix of teaching methods and a practical trip to a company, fire station, and a laboratory (an overnight trip! nice!). One thing that they don't do much of here in Gent is give assignments as the class is taught (out of 5 classes, 2 had exercises to be handed in). It's a catch 22, you feel like you have free time for 2 out of 3 months but then if you don't spend enough of it studying (or studying the right thing for that matter) then it all piles up until right before the exams.

Honestly I want to compare my experiences here with my University in the US, but I don't think it is possible. Comparing a masters and bachelors program is like comparing apples with oranges. Especially when you factor in student mentality and expectations. What can I say. Exams at my University were something in between Edinburgh & Lund. One thing I still don't really believe in is this re-exam system they have in Lund and Gent, which I never saw in the US or Edinburgh. It is a product of the cost of education in the US and the impending repercussions of failing a class which you then have to repeat (and pay for), but when you take an exam, you should prepare and be ready. Which is not necessarily cramming the last day or week to study before tests. In so many discussions with people used to the re-exam system here, everyone seems to just accept that they have such a fall back as a re-test. In some places, 3 or even 4 re-exams are possible. That simply is not the right attitude in my opinion. I can understand one re-exam, but there needs to be some pressure to learn and study. With the IMFSE program, things are a bit different due to the internationalness of things and moving around alot, but otherwise, I'm not a big fan. If you have to spend another 5 months in class, pay for the extra class, and possibly delay graduation, I think most people will take their studies seriously the first time around. My humble opinion :)

As always, I am quite thankful and yet still excited to be part of such a great program, the education, the opportunity to live in different places, be surrounded by such an international and friendly group of people, and being able to learn from some of the best in the field. And amongst the studying here in Gent, it has been a really good base to meet a lot of new people. And of course, the point of this whole dang blog for 2+ years, to travel! Some trips have been made around Belgium, and even a few to France and the Netherlands!
With classes officially done, thesis tackling is officially underway!

The group with Prof Saedeleer

Reputation for best beer in the world? Certified!

Beautiful City

Only in Belgium. No Fries in the church!
They rolled out the red carpet for us (hey, we can at least pretend)
Exploring a new city

An undeniable staple of Belgian cuisine. Yet miraculously thinness perserveres in the Belgian population.

Class trip to Somati to learn about fire detection & suppression. Smoke screens (fascinating, eh?)

Dennis has the unwavering concentration of a Jedi Yoga Ninja master in class. Studies say it takes 20 minutes for that coffee booster to kick in:
Celebrating after completing all exams!
Novec fire suppressant. Not recommended for use with french fries.

Bicycle traffic jams on the way to class

Explosion flow diverter

Demonstrating minimum ignition energies for suspended dusts & powders

Prof Verplaetsen, our walking/living encyclopedia, explainins and demonstrates flammability limits and how a dense region of gas will not ignite:

Explosion detection devices. These respond quicker than it takes to blink (which is about 100 milliseconds vs 5-60 ms for these systems). They also respond quicker than it took for me to understand what an explosion is.

Demonstrating flame speeds and how a flame arrestor works. See, first you have to handcuff the flame. Then you read it it's rights, then...

20 Liter explosion test cell. You never know with Prof. Verplaetsen, he might just be finding new ways to concoct Belgium's latest ground shaking explosion with just the meagerst of items, from Pringles cans to coffee powder and sugar.

Trip to Warrington Fire. Fire test of a wall.
We designed the smoke ventilation for a supermarket.