Tag Archives: lego

Spring in the time of Covid-19

This spring (and summer) turned out to be very different than planned, due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Just a few days after my last flight lesson, Belgium went into lockdown, working from home became the new norm, and social distancing undoubtedly established itself as the word of 2020 in an instant. Luckily (or rather thanks to the hard work of scientists, health care personnel, and the willingness of politicians to listen to these groups) we managed to flatten the curve before the health system got overwhelmed, and we are basically done with the measures as even bars and restaurants reopened two weeks ago, and since last Monday international travel is also allowed again. As the virus is still present, and there is no vaccine yet, it seems like life will have to go on in a quite different way compared to how things were used to be before Covid-19, with face masks and keeping a safe distance whenever possible.

While we had no physiological or financial issues (I can work as well – if not better – from home as from the office, and there is enough work to do), mentally these weeks (especially early on) were really not easy. In the beginning my hypochondria was messing with my head way too much, causing large swings in my mood and productivity, which got better only by limiting my news intake, and when hospitalisation numbers finally started going down. Initially I could not even fully enjoy my occasional bike rides outside because of my bad mental state. Luckily individual cycling (and running) was always allowed (and even encouraged), because I am pretty sure I would have gone really crazy without that… But holiday plans (including the so thoroughly planned and booked Trans Pyrenees ride) had to be cancelled (and everything is was too uncertain to start making new ones), we could not go to restaurants, there were no flight training, Liverpool FC was halted on the way to their first Premier League trophy, and I was not even allowed to drive to the Ardennes for a ride :( Mainly 1st world problems, but still, a big negative change in everyday lifestyle is difficult no matter the baseline.

After the initial shock, we slowly got used to the new situation. The exceptionally dry and warm weather (average temperature of my rides in April was 20.2°C, which is several degrees over the historical average, and this April-May was the driest April-May in Belgium since the beginning of measurements) definitely helped by creating plenty of opportunities for biking (and since I work 4/5th as of February, I have more free time in general in any case).

So while my big sportive goal for 2020 suddenly disappeared, I still continued with the training that I started at the beginning of this year (wanting to get my earlier cycling fitness back, and simply wanting to do something else besides sitting in front of the computer). I tried to keep my rides interesting by always picking a different route (while avoiding the busy paths along the waterways), and by participating in small challenges on a few selected road segments. After my burnout last year, I really enjoyed being on the bike again, and I tried biking without looking at the numbers most of the time (so biking for the good feeling, and not to achieve a given amount of kilometers a week or month). Even though I try to not not concentrate on the plain numbers anymore, having completed all main monthly Strava challenges (bike more than 1250 km, with more than 7500 m elevation gain, and including at least one 100 km ride) in April and May, and even getting a few KOMs (back) is something I am happy about (plus it seems like my cycling fitness level has just reached its all time high too). I have also visited some new places, like the spiral bike path looping through the trees and the bike path crossing a lake (in a way that the road is under the water level while your eyes are in line with it) in Limburg, or the geographical middle point of Belgium, and the West side of Brussels. The open road (or gravel path) was also the only place where I could meet up with a few friends when it was already safe to do so, and some of the best rides were these social evening spins just before sunset. I expect that now that flight training is restarting I will bike a bit less, but as we are allowed to take the car to ride somewhere else since last week, I hope to get back to the Ardennes and bike further away from Leuven more often in the coming months (which already started with a nice outing to Luxembourg on Sunday).

I have been riding with my beautiful steel bike too a lot (already more than over the whole past year), not only because it is a very nice bike, but also because I had to miss my Endurace for two weeks… The reason: the frame broke under me (where the front derailleur hanger is screwed onto the seat tube), just 500 m from home, but luckily without me crashing. Fortunately it cost me only 120 EUR to get a brand new replacement frame (instead of 2600 EUR which is the actual price of a new frame), as the bike was still covered by the 6 year guarantee of Canyon.

Work went also quite well the past months, as while coding gets boring sometimes, we have been in the news a lot (among others in the VRT, in De Tijd, in De Standaard, in the Knack, and for example with an article in the Verkeersspecialist) thanks to the traffic monitor that I set up using Telraam data, comparing the measured cars, heavy vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians to the pre-Covid-19 baseline on a daily and weekly basis. I think one of my biggest achievements is getting uncertainty intervals into the national media :) [As this is the wet dream of any data scientist, isn’t it?]

I think it is safe to say that our numbers became the standard when referring to traffic beyond the highways network. I could write a full paper about this, but I will spare you of the boring technical details (here). It’s enough to say that we tracked the initial fall and the slow and long return of traffic on the streets, and we have also seen how strongly leisure oriented cycling correlates with temperature and the absence of rain. Nothing fundamentally surprising, but scientifically sound, precise measurements of our everyday lives and habits, on a level (geographical extent, various modes, temporal resolution, and precision) that has not been done before.

My PhD student (whom I co-supervised the past years, even when I was not working at the university anymore) has defended her thesis, and while for the internal examination we could still meet up with the whole jury in person (followed by a nice dinner), her “public” defense was the first virtual defense at the department (and also the first PhD defense at the Institute of Astronomy of the KU Leuven that is now on YouTube). It went really well (of course), and having a sip of champagne and a piece of chocolate together with her (and my former) supervisor was a nice moment afterwards, even though nobody else could be present. As illustration of a perfect supervisor-student relationship, we both got each other a LEGO to build (and – unrelated – Clio also got me a really nice set to cheer me up when I was feeling really down, which we build up together on a less sunny weekend).

While I could not fly in real life, I spent quite some time (and that is a clear understatement) to create a very precise model of the airport of Charleroi for the flight simulator (X-Plane 11). Instead of listing all the features here (but it has a hand-crafted terrain model, extremely precise markings and lights, taxiway signs, and even some custom 3D models – which took me back to SketchUp after quite some years -, including the iconic first floor facade of the passenger terminal), I will just link the download page of the scenery for the curious readers. It has been very popular among fellow simmers, it is currently within the 20 most popular scenery downloads of the last month. It feels pretty much like the real thing, it is a shame that I can not fly with a Sonaca 200 in the simulator (and making a plane is a bit more complex than making an airport, so no thank you), that would really help in practising some flows and procedures. Sometimes I really hate my perfectionism, because I keep finding things to improve upon, which on one hand is something I like to do, but on the other hand it takes time away from actually just using the scenery.

Finally, for the rest of the lockdown news, we have seen the “train” of Starlink satellites on the evening sky (and even recorded the view), and also managed to find a game on PlayStation that we can sometimes play together (Minecraft Dungeons). Two weeks ago on Friday I was finally back in the air (then last Saturday too), so expect some flight training related posts in the near future (since I can barely think of anything else than flying since then).

The rest of 2019 (Part 1 – Burnout on the bike)

Now that the travel journal of our Iceland road trip is finally online, I can “quickly” go through the rest of the year in the usual summary-style blog post, just for the record (so when I am 80 I have stuff to read in my spare time – although I do wonder if I will ever have spare time, anyway…).

Almost immediately after coming home from Iceland we went to France with a few friends (and two dogs) for a cycling/relaxing holiday, staying in a small house in the tiny village of Margerides, just west of Les volcans d’Auvergne in the Massif central. This time the best cyclists from the previous year could not join, so the pace on the road was much more relaxed. We left Belgium one day earlier so I could drive in two parts, and also have a ride from Clermont-Ferrand, enjoying the warm sunshine and the beautiful landscape while biking past the Chaîne des Puys (a chain of volcanic cones – the Puy de Dôme being the most prominent), and over the Col de la Croix Morand (1401 m ASL). By the evening everybody arrived, so the following day all the guys joined for a nice and shorter – but very hot – ride over the Mont Bessou (a smaller local peak, with a bit of super steep climbing through the forest). A day later I went solo, doing a scenic loop over the highest pass of the region, the Col du Pas de Peyrol (1589 m ASL). The climb was made more difficult than expected by the strong, hot headwind – as soon as I noticed the small bar at the Col de Serre (an intermediate peak after a prolonged steep section through the forest), my bike basically automatically turned off the main road to give me a small break (and a cold local cola). From there on I basically had to stop on each col for an extra drink, and after the 100 km mark I pretty much just wanted to make it home for dinner and the Champions League Final (I will come back to this later). In the rest of the week we got some rain every second day, so I got a few bike-free days to relax, blog, and playing Mario Kart with the others (in the slightly cold and fireplace-scented living room). Every day we had nice breakfasts and delicious dinners together, mostly around the table in front of the house in the sunshine (and only occasionally inside, hiding from the rain).

For my fourth ride I planned a rollercoaster over the cols around the Puy de Sancy (the highest being the Col de la Croix St Robert at 1451 m ASL), and except for the first and last hour I was again accompanied by the guys. The curvy, open road leading down from the Col de la Croix St Robert was probably the nicest descent of the week. Two days later I headed South with Willem and Hao, riding over the Col de Neronne (1242 m ASL) into the Maronne valley. We finally managed to stop for a proper lunch too, having a nice galette in the scenic, historic village of Salers. For the last ride Steven got back on his bike too, so it was the four of us discovering the small roads over the grassy highlands of Montgreleix. The scenery was beautiful every day, the roads were perfect, and there was barely any traffic, so I can safely say that this region is another lesser known cycling paradise in France. (I biked 647 km with 12500 metres of elevation game during these days.)

Liverpool finished the Premier League season with a club-record 97 points (with only one defeat), unfortunately still one point behind Manchester City. But after the lost Europe League final three years ago, and the painful defeat in the Champions League final last year, the reds finally became champions of Europe again, for the 6th time in history, after beating Tottenham in the Champions League final (and we all know, Champions of Europe > Champions of England…).

The most memorable game on the way to victory was undoubtedly the return leg of the semi-final at Anfield. After being beaten in Barcelona by three goals, the Scousers managed to win 4:0 (thanks to a pair of goals from Wijnaldum and Origi – who then also scored the second goal of the final). It illustrates the quality of the team that nobody talks about this result as the Miracle of Anfield. It was not really a surprise. It was the reality. Statistically speaking the current Liverpool team is the best Liverpool team of all times, they are setting new records on the pitch every week, as of the 2nd of January they are unbeaten on their last 37 Premier League games, and they lead the league by 13 points with a game in hand (20 games played this season so far, 19 won and 1 drawn). Maybe this year will finally be our year. Winning the league (a feat Liverpool supporters are waiting for since 1989) would most likely guarantee a statue for Jürgen Klopp in front of the stadium. It is amazing what he has achieved here during his four years so far. And just for the record, Liverpool also won the European Super Cup against the Europe League winners Chelsea, and the FIFA Club World Cup, completing the international treble of 2019, making them not only statistically, but also officially the best team of the world for now.

Let’s move over to the tidbits category. The annual team building activity at work was a virtual reality game this year, which was unexpectedly awesome. Being able to actually move around – and not only look around – in the VR environment (we were walking around in a large empty room with a VR headset and a force-feedback gun, and our real life position in the empty room was translated into movement in the VR world by sensors around us) made the whole experience extremely immersive – I even fell once because I wanted to lean against a virtual wall while crunching in cover, completely forgetting that it was not a physical object, which resulted in me rolling/felling to my right and laughing at myself – immediately realising the nature of the mistake I just made. I also had a few fun hours while assembling the new LEGO NASA Apollo 11 Lunar Lander (10266), which is now one of the many lego sets on display in our living room.

By the summer solstice I felt strong on the bike again (thanks to the cycling holiday and some good training rides afterwards), so it was time for my annual epic ride. On the longest day of the year I left Leuven not much after sunrise to ride my bike to the heart of the Ardennes (Trois-Points) and back. With 310 km, 4217 meters of elevation gain, and a ride time of 12 hours and 36 minutes (plus two hours of food and photo stops in total), this became my longest solo ride so far (plus 3rd by elevation gain, and finishing on the top of the virtual podium by duration – even including group rides too). Maybe not completely unexpectedly or surprisingly, my motivation to ride the bike fell off a cliff almost immediately after this epic day, and as a consequence I biked as much in the second half of the year as I did in the month of June… I still liked being on the bike, but I got a bit bored of the local roads (especially in crap weather), or training without a goal – beyond reaching a magic number at the end of the year -, and I think I just wanted to do something else for a change. Anyway, I still had three nice rides in the months that followed, once with colleagues in Luxembourg (with still quite good legs), then alone around the highest roads of Belgium, finally with a colleague in the unknown corner of the Belgium-Germany-Luxembourg border region. All really nice places to cycle. Lately I started to feel getting out of shape though, so I got a new direct drive trainer and a temporary subscription to Zwift, hoping to rebuild some form in the coming months (I am three trainings into a 12 week training plan, so I think I got my motivation back), so when spring comes around with nice weather, I will be capable of biking more than 30 km at more than 25 km/h… And while the contrast is very big compared to the last few years – when I biked through the winter without any rest period (probably playing a role in this burnout) -, it is actually not much different from my first seasons as a cyclist, so I think as long as I am not picking up too much weight I don’t have a real reason to panic. (Just for the history books, I finished 2019 with 7054 km, which is my 3rd lowest sum ever.)

By the way, on the eve of my solstice ride, just when I was going to go to bed, the most amazing display of Noctilucent Clouds lit up the Northern horizon, so even though I really wanted to get at least 6 hours of sleep, I had to settle with 5, because I simply could not let the display of the decade (or century) pass by without taking a few pictures. But it was definitely worth it.

LEGO NASA Apollo Saturn V

I have been waiting for this set to come out since it appeared on the LEGO Ideas website a few years ago, and – oh boy – it was worth the wait! I built it in a bit less than six hours over the weekend; the assembly was a lot of fun, and it showcased a set of interesting techniques. The final model is fully functional (except for the part where it flies to the Moon): all the stages can be properly separated, the LM fits nicely inside the fairing, etc. It is simply gorgeous. Just look at it:





Watching Hidden Figures was a perfect match for the evening after the assembly.

February, March, April…

Again more-or-less three months without blogging. It is getting more and more difficult to find time or motivation to write, but there are so many things I would want to remember later, and my blog is the best diary, so let’s see what you missed. (Also, since most of my written English practice comes from this blog, I have to admit that I felt quite bad about my language skills while writing this post… Another reason to write more often. Then again, there is this thing about promises and not being able to keep them, so, whatever…)

LEGO: After my mountain bike, I got myself another – much cheaper – present for my birthday: the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover from LEGO! It gave me a nice evening of assembling, and now it is on display below our TV. Undoubtedly, LEGO was the best toy of my childhood – even when we got our first computer, I kept playing with it. Among my favourite constructions were a suspension bridge, and an astronomical telescope in a proper rotating dome, but I always enjoyed simply following the instructions too. Ah, those were the days! I don’t think I will ever be too old for LEGO. Maybe at one point I should get all my LEGO from Hungary, since I don’t think my brother wants to play with it… The only problem is, that 1) we probably have no space for all that LEGO, 2) there is no way we could fly them over without paying extra for the overweight bags. It is really a lot of LEGO :)


Plots: Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while must know, that I am a data-freak. While preparing my annual seminar talk for the institute I also spent some time on data-mining and visualisation using the database of observations made with the HERMES spectrograph (at the Mercator telescope on La Palma). It turned out, that I have the 3rd highest amount of observing time at the instrument. (Even without counting the time I spent there with the master students as support astronomer – if one was to add those nights to my sum, then I would be winning with quite a landslide.) As an example, here is a plot showing the distribution of all HERMES observations throughout the first 5 years of HERMES, and a plot showing their distribution on the sky near the original Kepler field (different colours mean different observing programs, the dark blue area on the first plot represents the night time, and the symbol size is connected to the exposure time).



You can see – among many other things – how seasonal some observing programs are, and how well covered the Kepler field is. This was a nice exercise with python to learn a few new things about projections and calendar-data visualisation.

Making Belgian chocolate: After my public PhD defence I got a voucher for a chocolate workshop from my colleagues, but we only managed to go and do it now, at the end of March. It was a two hour session in the Bittersweet Chocolatier in the centre of Leuven, and we got to make small praline filled chocolate easter eggs, larger chocolate figurines, and pistachio balls covered in chocolate. It was a very nice experience, even without mentioning the half kilogram of – both self made and original Bittersweet – chocolate each of us got to take home afterwards :) I think it was definitely the best PhD defence present I have seen so far.







Royal Greenhouses of Laeken: Last week my mother came for a visit, and this time she finally got to enjoy the Belgian sunshine for a bit longer than a few seconds. Her only wish was to visit the coast and take De Kusttram between a few of the coastal towns, which we did on our first full day. The weather was warm, but we still got to use our umbrellas in a short thunderstorm which caught us while walking through the dunes. I also brought along my kite, but this time there was basically no wind at all (which is extremely rare on the coast), so I could not play much with it. There were other people with kites desperately waiting for stronger winds too…

On the next day, we went to Brussels to visit the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which is only accessible to the public during a short, three week long period each spring. It was very beautiful, despite being a little bit crowded. Although I think that the variety of plants in the – much smaller – botanic garden of Leuven (which we visited just a few days earlier with Clio, and on the following day with my mother) is larger, there is no doubt that the architectural beauty of this place, and the amount of blooming flowers there was truly exceptional.







Work: Research usually takes more time than originally expected, but this time I really underestimated how much of it would take me to finish my latest paper. When I discovered something particularly interesting during the conference in Sydney last year, I though I could be finished with the necessary analysis before the end of the year (2013). Then we ran into various unexpected problems (shit happens when you do thing which were never done before), resulting in a delay of several months… But now, just before leaving to Chile (more about that later), I finally submitted the manuscript to the usual journal (A&A). Let’s hope the referee will find our work worthy, and I can show you (or at least post about) the results in a few months!

Denver, CO

After three days of cycling in the beautiful Rockies (or for Clio, being at her ice cold conference), on Thursday morning, we took the bus to Denver. It was a quick and comfortable ride, much better than I expected. It seemed that people in the USA just don’t take buses to travel that far. Or it was just too early on the morning, I do not know. Anyway, after arriving to downtown Denver, we walked to the local Light Rail (let me just say tram) station to meet up with our host, Djazia. This raised the astronomer density with 50% :D We took the tram to the southeast to check in and put our luggage down at our hotel (actually, a quite huge apartment suite) before we headed back to downtown to do a bit of sightseeing in the city itself. Also, Clio got her Nexus 4 so now we have the same phone ;)


The thunderstorms of the previous days left towards the east, so the weather was nice and sunny again, with temperatures around 25°C. First we dropped by a nice old bookstore, then had a quick lunch at a cool (nerdy) restaurant (the Euclid Hall), followed by a huge cake in a huge bakery (everything is huge over there).


Reaching our (ok, my) maximum intake capacity, we walked around the main street (16th Street Mall) to get rid off some of the calories… It was a nice transition from the low buildings of Boulder towards the still-to-come skyscrapers of New York.


I got the second thing I wanted to buy in the USA, a huge set of LEGO, the Architecture Studio. It is a really cool pack of 1210 pieces of solely white and transparent LEGO blocks selected carefully by various architects, and a 270 page book about architecture illustrated with LEGO examples, giving mostly inspiration to your designs, while explaining architectural concepts.


Afterwards we still walked all the way down to the parks near the Capitol (which was unluckily mostly hidden under a forest of scaffolding). This area did not feel too safe, so both Clio and I were happy to head back towards the more busy streets. For dinner we went to the best sushi place of the city (it was not easy to get there, it took almost an hour with two buses – the distances are surprisingly enormous), the Japon. It is situated within a very nice and calm residential area on a street with more small restaurants and shops. The sushi was indeed great (I accidentally picked the most expensive special rolls from the menu, but I am sure the rest was also as amazing), so we left very satisfied. Since it was getting quite late, we took the taxi back to our hotel, and fell asleep very quickly.

On Friday Clio went shopping with Djazia and I stayed at the hotel to sleep a bit more and play KSP (oh yes, maybe more about that in a separate post). On the evening we had a nice barbecue (although we failed miserably with setting up the fire properly, so at the end the meat was prepared in a pan). I was really happy to finally have a day of not doing anything, because I still felt tired after all the cycling earlier that week. Again, falling asleep was not a problem, even though the generator of the apartment complex started up once every half hour, which made quite some noise…

On Saturday morning we packed our bags again, and took a taxi to the airport to take our flight to New York…