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Between the end of the road trip and the end of the summer

Tomorrow I am flying to La Palma for a last observing run at the Mercator telescope, so maybe this is a good time to write a short summary of the past one and a half months. After coming back from Scandinavia we spent a weekend in Zeeland. Here I had a great (and pretty fast) ride around the Oosterschelde, enjoying the amazing bike infrastructure of the Netherlands, then on the evening we had delicious mussels with fries overlooking a small harbour. As usual, I did some kiting too before driving back to Leuven on the following day.

I did not work too much on the Leuven Sky Atlas lately, except for a few refinements, but I ordered a bunch of other sky atlases to be able to make a better comparison to them. So now I own all the sky atlases that I would have loved to have when I was an active amateur astronomer more than a decade ago… I would actually like to be more involved again, as astrophotography really interests me, but the Belgian climate plus the high amounts of light pollution are far from optimal for it, not to mention it would be another pretty expensive hobby.

I sent in my first job application outside of astronomy too, but after I am back from La Palma I will have to be a bit more active on the job market, because my contract at the Institute of Astronomy ends on the 30th of September, and while I would like to have some time to finish and publish my star atlas, I would not like to stay without a job for too long afterwards. So, if you are looking for someone with experience in data analysis, data visualisation, or you just need a business parter to start up a cycling cafe in the Leuven area, I am available :)

At the beginning of August I have been taking care of our friends’ cats for a week, which was really nice, and they loved me even after they got fed ;) Thanks to Clio we were VIPs on the roof bar of the Museum of Leuven for one evening during the Midzomer festivities. Here we had dinner while listening to a concert, then we ended the evening with a walk around the exhibitions of the recently renovated museum (which was actually my first time inside).

During one of my standard evening training rides the wind direction was perfect to try to get the KOM (king of the “mountain”, or simply the best time on a given stretch of road) on one of the sprint sections along the Demer, so after getting up to a good starting speed I opened my sprint. As soon as I started pedalling out of the saddle I felt a sharp pain at the side of my left knee, but I thought that it was probably just hit by a small stone or piece of wood that got picked up by my front wheel, so I kept pushing to actually break the previous record by one second (completing the section in 34 seconds at an average speed of 57.5 km/h, reaching a heart rate of 195 bpm for the first time in 2 years). During the last seconds of the effort the pain got more intense, and as soon as I stopped I could see the bee sting hanging out of my skin. I pulled it out, and kept the rest of the ride on a low intensity. My previous similar incident with a bee happened before we had internet (somewhere in the early nineties), but luckily I had no severe reaction to it this time either.

We also had our yearly summer holidays in Budapest. Besides enjoying the usual cocktails and cakes all around the city, this time we drove to the Mátra mountains. We visited the highest point of Hungary (1014 metres ASL), then the tourist center of Galyatető for lunch and to climb up to the new lookout tower, and on the way home the Royal Palace of Gödöllő for a small walk in the gardens. Clio finally got to enjoy some actual summer temperatures with three days between 33°C and 38°C before the weather got back to normal. Getting home was not very smooth, because first of all on the morning my parents’ car had a flat tire that we only noticed a few minutes into the drive towards the airport, so we had to call a last minute taxi, then the ground crew at Brussels Airport went on an unannounced strike, so we got a three hour delay on top of this. Of course this meant that our one checked-in bag also did not make it from the airplane to the luggage claim area after landing, so we had to drive back to the airport a few days later to pick it up…

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After a week off the bike the first time back in the saddle on an evening training session at the race track of Zolder was very painful, so I requested a switch in the lineups for the 12 hours of Zolder (moving from our 2nd team to the 3rd, the “Fun Team”) for the following Saturday. The 12 hour race itself was really great, we had a lot of people and supporters under the Squadra Tornado tent, and my legs were also surprisingly good. I did two shifts for a total of a bit more than three hours with an average speed of 40.4 km/h. I managed to stay with the main peloton in both sessions, in the first half of the second one I even worked a lot at the front of the group, and closed several gaps to small breakaway attempts (then almost got dropped because I pushed myself a bit too far, but luckily I managed to hang on). Our best team finished just below the podium, while we ended up at a 40th position overall (out of 207), and 4th (out of 12) in the under 40 team of 8 category. I was really happy about being able to stay with the fast group the whole time, for me that was already a huge success! The great legs stayed with me for a few more days, closing the summer season with a good ride on the Vlierbeekriders Classic.

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On the gaming departement, I am playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild these days on the Nintendo Switch, and I love both the game, both the portable console.

I have loads of plans for La Palma, so maybe there will be a few more interesting posts again.

The past few months in a (larger) nutshell

This is a post that has been in the making for a while, with multiple updates to the text, but here we go now. So let’s see what happened since the end of last October… I will try to group the events a bit, since there is way too much to just throw in here everything in a plain chronological order.

Cycling: I have had my last ride with my old cycling team (WTCOOL), and I joined Squadra Tornado because I needed a faster group. Since then, most Saturday mornings are spent with group rides (and up to an hour every week with planning the routes, since that is something I am good at). I had my first ride in/on snow with the MTB, which was a lot of fun (simply the fact that this winter we got at least one day with more or less proper snow was quite a surprise after the April-like temperatures in December), and I even put a few extra kilometres in the MTB, because after one of the Saturday morning rides my electronic Shimano Ultegra Di2 rear derailleur was not working anymore, so I had to spend a week without my beloved racing bike while the faulty component was replaced in the Canyon Service Center. Those were hard times…

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Then in February I had my coldest long solo ride when I took a nice and sunny day off work to go to Namur. I finished a day with 163 km (a proper imperial century), 1100 m of elevation gain, and most importantly, an average temperature of 2°C. In March I finished 3rd on the Tornado club championship (that took place on the Parel van het Hageland), after going into a 5 man breakaway but starting the final sprint a bit too late. In any case that was a very nice result, so I even gave in to the pressure and joined Willem to start in a proper race (koers) two weeks later in Bazel. Now that was a total disaster :D It was not only crazy windy, but we also had to start together with the category A riders, so I was done and dusted/dropped after one lap… It was a shame especially because the weather was actually very nice, so instead of sitting in a car for two hours getting there and back and biking a total of 13 km (while getting my ass served to me on a silver plate), I could have done a nice 100+ km ride in shorts. Anyway, at least now people can not say that I did not even try. April (and then May, and June…) this year turned out to be strangely cold (probably a punishment for the last two months of 2015), but luckily it was still warm enough – most of the time – to go biking in shorts with arm/knee warmers and an occasional wind (of yeah, the f… wind that never seems to stop here) vest. I also spent a nice long weekend (3 days) riding (300 km) mostly up and down in the Voerstreek (over the climbs of the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands to the North, and over the highest point of Belgium to the South) with the Tornado guys. My route planning skills were highly appreciated by everyone. This year I also went to the start of the Brabantse Pijl to take pictures, but the weather was not really helping in getting nice shots; I got exactly one that I was more-or-less happy about…

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I also got a subscription to the fancy Rouleur magazine from Clio for my birthday, and spent lots of money on Rapha kit pieces (merino base layers, merino arm/knee warmers, rain jacket, etc.). I am such a snob… (Not 100% true, actually these things are really good, but I still remember the time when I said I would never spend this kind of money on cycling clothes.) There was also a week when I managed to do a training ride each weekday (mostly on the evenings after work, 356 km in total), which is something I have never done before (when not on holidays). In any case it was necessary, because winter came back for the following weekend (with actual snow-showers), and we had the coldest end of April in years. Hell, we officially had the wettest first 6 months of a year ever… Most importantly, I rode across the Pyrenees with Willem, but there will be a separate post about that.

Running: During the winter, especially throughout January, I was doing some serious running training as a preparation to a 26 km long trail running event in the Meerdaalwoud (a forest not far from home). I had signed up for the race a few monts earlier, and I was going to participate together with Willem. During my training, I even did boring hill repeats, and ran a new half Marathon personal record of 1:50:07 in a beautiful white forest (a day after my snowy MTB ride), which was a run that I enjoyed almost as much as a bike ride. Then Willem got sick just a day before the event, and the forest turned into a mud-fest from days of continuous rain, so my motivation dropped significantly, and I turned back home halfway to the start of the race… I have not ran a single kilometer since, partly because I wanted to save my knees for the Pyrenees, but also because who are we kidding, running still sucks compared to cycling. On the other hand, Clio also did some running during the autumn and it was really nice to go and run in the forest together. Sadly, she also thinks that running sucks :D

Gadgets: After so many product release cycles of not doing it, I bought an iPhone 6S, and I am very happy with it. I was also perfectly fine with my Nexus 4 that served me well for more than two years, but the camera sucked on that big time. Now I don’t feel bad if I see something nice and I don’t have one of my more professional cameras with me, because I can take a very nice photo with the iPhone too (most of these end up on Instagram though and not on the blog). Of course it does not (and can not) replace my DSLR, but there is no point in denying it, that for everyday snapshots, it is perfect. Still on the photography side, I got a new addition for my DSLR too, a wide angle Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens. I did not use it much yet (only a few shots in Paris and at the start of the Brabantse Pijl), but it is a nice piece of glass. Moving on towards less heavy pieces of technology, I finally made good use of my GoPro HERO4 Silver on the bike, recording one of our first sunny Saturday group rides, and editing the footage afterwards into a nice video. It got much more use in the Pyrenees of course (and I will be still busy editing the footage for a long time). Not such a long time ago I also bought a new cycling GPS, the Garmin Egde 520. It is not perfect (has a limited storage for maps, and the time the map screen takes to refresh is a bit on the too long side – I get that it saves battery life, but still…), but it is more compact, has a much better screen visibility/contrast, and packs a ton of advanced features compared to my almost 4 year old Edge 800. Most importantly, since I was able to upload my rides via bluetooth over my phone in the Pyrenees every day, I did not have to stress about loosing any data for some unexpected reason.

Nationality: I spent a considerable amount if time (often with some support from Clio, who is definitely the best paperwork-organiser amongst the two of us), and money (a few hundreds of Euros in total) applying for the Belgian nationality last November-December. It is a long story of running between different offices and the city hall several times (with many details that I possibly don’t even remember anymore), but to sum things up, I have lived and worked here long enough, and speak the language (Dutch) good enough so that I could request to become a Belgian. The only actual extra thing that I needed to do (beyond providing lots of documents proving the fulfilment of the aforementioned criteria – and no, having a trilingual birth certificate where one of the languages is French, one of the official languages of the country, is not enough, you need to pay extra cash for an official Dutch translation), was proving my social integration. For that I had to do a one hour test in Brussel (on the day when the terror alert was on the highest level, so the city was empty, and getting to the exam in the centrum was slightly less straightforward than it normally is). It was definitely not very hard, but it still took me almost the full one hour to finish it, mostly because it was just a lot of questions (something like 12 pages if I remember correctly). So I can see that for someone who does not know the language (since even though the questions were in English, most of the fill-out forms and texts were in Dutch), or does not know how to use the internet efficiently (for the tasks where you had to look up information on the websites of federal organisations to be able to answer correctly), this might be not so doable. Anyway, after going through all of the above discussed mess, my dossier had been completed and the city hall of Leuven approved it in January before sending it further for the final decision. They had a maximum of four months to approve or disapprove my request on the federal level, but it did not take that long, and from the 22nd of April, I am officially a real Belgian! Frietjes voor iedereen! (To make things clear, now I have a Belgian-Hungarian double nationality.)

Driving: Yes, this is also happening. After a few years behind the wheel on the PlayStation, I am actually getting my driving licence for real. Since Clio hates driving, but we want to be able to drive around for holidays and such, I finally got some real motivation to get over with this. I passed my theory exam (in Dutch) in January (49/50), then I took 20 hours of practice from a driving school in March and April (also in Dutch). It went extremely well, I had a great instructor, and I enjoyed driving a lot! Seriously, I was looking forward to my driving lessons every week. Having the mindset of a road cyclist is unquestionably beneficial, since we have to be very aware of the traffic situation around us (to stay alive). It also clearly helped a lot that I was already familiar with how the pedals and the gear shifting worked from the hours of driving with the PS3 (where I had a physical wheel, three pedals, and a stick). After a break of three weeks I even had two extra hours to refresh my memories (and do a practice exam), then I was supposed to have my practical exam on the 4th of May… Unluckily, they did not even let me take the exam, because just a day earlier I had to apply for a new ID card (since from the day I became Belgian my old ID stopped working), and the exam centrum did not accept the official paper the city hall had given me to prove that I was in the process of getting my new ID (even though the city hall told me that it should be ok)… This was not a minor hiccup, because I had to delay my exam to my reserve date (the 20th of May), and I also had to go back to the city hall and apply for a fast procedure ID for an extra 120 EUR, just to make sure that I do have an ID by the time of that exam… Then even though I finally got my ID, and drove extremely well according to my instructor (except for one small mistake at the very beginning), my examinator failed me :( Since this was my original reserve date, now I had no backups left, which means that I have to wait till the end of August to have another go at it, because all dates are fully booked months in advance… As a result, now we had to cancel the holiday we had planned to the Black Forest / Annecy / Grenoble / Colmar with the car, which was luckily all free cancellation, but I was already really looking forward to it… So yeah, this sucks. On a more positive note, just before my original exam date, we also bought a new car, a Honda Jazz Trend 1.3 CVT, replacing Clio’s very old Honda :) I have already driven it a few times (e.g. home from the garage, and on the highway in a huge storm), and I like it a lot. And the best feature: we can put both of our bikes inside in an upright position, thanks to the Magic Seats of the Jazz! To do this in a clean-and-tidy way, I made a fork-mount system that holds the front forks at a fixed position. It is extremely pro.

Travel: In the middle of December we spent a weekend in the Ardennes, walking around in the nice weather (to Durbuy, the smallest city of Belgium), playing Catan, and having great dinners at the restaurant of our hotel. We also had an overnight stay in Ghent around Christmas (a bit of Christmas Market, a bit of shopping, a bit of hipster food, and a very nice hotel room), and spent 3 days in Paris just around my Birthday meeting up with friends, doing minimal touristic things (a visit to an Osiris exposition, and getting soaked in a sudden downpour), and playing a lot of games (Exploding Kittens FTW!).

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At the end of April we went to the wedding of Annick and Peter (cycling friends), and stayed in a lovely bread and breakfast afterwards, where we enjoyed the best brunch ever on the morning after the party (we were a bit sad that there was so much choice that we were already full before being able to taste everything). Finally, just as summer arrived to Belgium for the first weekend of May (just to leave a week later), we spent a long weekend in Rotterdam meeting up with my parents (walking around and having nice food). I still like the architecture of the city a lot. For the summer holidays we are still going to the Black Forest but with a train, and then to Hungary as usual. In addition to these, I have conferences on the Azores and in the Lake District in the UK. And since I will be so close to Liverpool, I have booked a night there and a ticket to Anfield to the Liverpool FC – Leicester City game on the 10th of September just before the conference! (Crazy expensive, but I don’t care, it’s one of my big dreams coming true!)

Gaming: I am still spending a lot of time on the evenings playing the PS4, the games in chronological order from the past months are: FIFA 16 (although this comes back regularly when I am bored of other games), The Wither 3 (which was mostly fun, although not as cool as Dragon Age: Inquisition last year, but I still liked that I only had to care about one character, and not four like in DA:I), NHL 16 (which was a nice change from the football, especially since I have not played the NHL series since 2002), and most recently The Division.

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My standard game every year is always the current edition of FIFA, but since The Division came out I have barely played anything else (and spent ~200 hours with The Division). We also often play with board games (most often the already mentioned The Rivals for Catan, Carcassonne, or Yahtzee), and since none of these have actual boards, maybe they should be just called analogue games. I also got a box of LEGO (WALL-E) from Clio after passing my driving theory exam, which was a lot of fun to assemble. I also took part in the bachelor party of Peter (one of my cycling friends), where we did Gokart racing (a full mini GP, with practice and qualification sessions and a small race, and even though I was the only one with zero actual driving experience, I finished 5th out of 10), laser tag, and dodgem-football. It was a really fun day! Then there was the bachelor weekend of Willem, where I had my first escape room experience, and way too little sleep, so I felt more tired than after the Pyrenees… Oh, and I almost totally forgot it, version 1.1 of Kerbal Space Program was also released and it is finally perfectly stable on my Mac (previous versions always had memory-related crashes every 15-30 minutes, which made the game simply not fun to play), so I will probably play it again when I will be on La Palma supervising the students :D I wish I had more than 24 hours in a day (sleeping is such a waste of time).

Others: Work is going fine, but a bit slow, so I am not going to talk much about it here. I am trying to finish up a paper about the research I have been doing in the past year, but it seems to be taking forever… I need to present some new results on two conferences this year, so I must have it all done by July. My Dutch classes were boring (luckily they are finally over), but the worst thing is that we had to switch to a new book for Level 4 following some strange central directive, and it sucks big time compared to our previous book. It is not even a Flemish book, but a Dutch one (so it has some words that are never used in Flanders)… So I am not going to continue with the language classes next semester, I will just have to speak more Dutch instead of English, and study a bit on my own.

That is all. Now that I had to write about it, it seems like I had quite a lot of fun in the past months, even if sometimes it feels like nothing special is happening most of the time. Hopefully I will not wait months again to post another update, but I would rather not make any promises… :) (This post might also get updated with extra pictures in the future.)

Fly me to the Mün (a Kerbal Space Program “review”)

I believe that grown ups can be gamers. I do not remember if I have ever written about this topic on this blog, but you might know anyway, that I spend quite some time in front of the PlayStation playing the actual FIFA series in my free time. In this post however, I will talk about something else. I stumbled upon Kerbal Space Program roughly two months ago, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. The game is still in development phase (version 0.21), with updates coming out roughly every two months. Since at this point it lacks carrier mode or missions, you need to figure out yourself what to do, but the main goal is running the space program of the Kerbals, who live on planet Kerbin in the Kerbol System. There are many stock parts available (and an overwhelming amount of community maintained add-ons) to build rockets, landers, rovers, probes, etc. But be careful with your design, because you really need to get your rocket science done correctly (definitely have the cheat sheet nearby, but I think without reading through and following a few tutorials, you will end up crashing your keyboard in madness), since the game is build on a quite realistic physics engine (although aerodynamic drag is not modelled too well so far). You will learn many things about orbital mechanics and actual rocket science while playing (thrust-to-weight ratios, rocket equations, deltaV values, using the navball, orbital manoeuvres, rendezvous and docking, interplanetary travel, aerobraking, and so on). And you are always in control, there is no autopilot. You control the thrusters, the staging, different parts, everything! But instead of going into any further details (which you can anyway look up on-line), let me walk you through my most advanced mission so far. It took at least 3 hours to design, build (using 167 parts), and test, and another 3 hours to fly the mission… (Yeah, long, lonely observing nights… I warn you, do not start playing this if you have only one hour to spare…) I present you Orion-2, a slightly altered Apollo-style mission to the Mün with three Kerbals on board. (Orion-1 was a similar mission, but without a buggy.)

Orion-2 sits on the launch pad, and for clarity I have labelled the different parts. The weather is optimal, there is some wind from the west, but the sky is clear, and lift-off is in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four… [The game is available for PC, Mac, and Linux, and although the graphics are on purpose a bit cartoony, the following screenshots were taken at display settings which are far from maximal, so on a better computer, things look even much nicer - terrain quality is higher, textures are more detailed, shadows and lighting are better, etc.]

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