So yes, as my most recent posts have already illustrated, I flew a lot, got my PPL(A) and my EASA Night Rating, and I took some pictures in Norway, but there were some other memorable events in the past year which should not stay undocumented. For people who still care about personal blogs. (I am really getting old…)Continue reading
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).
My postdoctoral contract came to an end last year at the end of September, and I had made the decision already quite a long time ago that I would not apply for an extension. I have been doing more or less the same in astronomy (namely asteroseismology) for the past ten years, and I wanted to move to a new field, where I can deal with more practical issues, and contribute to more burning problems of our society. I never regretted choosing astronomy as a profession, it was my childhood dream, and I got nice achievements in the field, but I have no regrets stopping and starting in a completely different topic. Change can be a good thing.
I had a very nice goodbye reception with more than a kilogram of M&Ms, three cakes and a lot of other snacks, so everybody was happy (with the food, not with me leaving), and I even got some presents from my colleagues (among others two Star Wars themed LEGO sets). Since I am still co-supervising a PhD student (and that is something I still really enjoy, so I don’t want to stop with it) I have kept my affiliation (and staff card) as a voluntary (unpaid) research fellow at the university (for which I am grateful to my old boss), but that changed nothing in the fact that I became unemployed in October.
Thanks to the very generous Belgian social security system (we pay those high taxes for a reason after all) I did not have to rush into a new position, so I had time to look for jobs that would really match both my skill set and my interest (and the fact that I really did not want to commute to a job outside of Leuven).
I definitely took my time. I used October to just relax and – as already mentioned before – just bike as much as possible. Luckily the weather was still great, so I could really make the most out of the month this way. By the end of October I had satisfied my biking needs to the full extent, so I started browsing the job market more actively. I got myself a job coach who helped me organise my thoughts about what kind of job I would like to do, and who also gave some useful tips on how to organise my job search and how to prepare for an interview. I set up some very specific keywords on the website of the VDAB (the Belgian unemployment office), so I would receive only relevant job offers, and of course I refined my linkedin profile too. I also attended a job fair aimed especially at people with a PhD, but that was more of a networking practice than anything else.
In the beginning of November we went to the Ardennes for a few days where we had the nicest Belgian hike so far (around the branches of the river Ourthe), and surprisingly we still got enough warmth from the sunshine to eat pancakes on a terrace.
Besides the job search, I still had quite some time do do other things. Of course while I was unemployed I did all the groceries, cooking (with my speciality being a delicious Pad Thai), and cleaning around the house. Whenever the weather allowed I also went cycling (for example for a nice 100 kilometre loop between Namur and Huy), and on the late evenings I played either FIFA (my biggest achievement this year is the treble with Liverpool on World Class difficulty), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (a really great game on the Nintendo Switch), or Cities: Skylines (a city building game). Hoping to get more group rides next year I joined the Vlierbeekriders cycling club (because with Squadra Tornado people are way more racing oriented, so during the good weather months everybody is off to races on the weekends and there is nobody left to do long rides with).
I have to say that by December I started to get a bit bored at home sometimes, so I got really excited when one day I found a very exciting job opening in my mailbox. It was a junior researcher position at Transport & Mobility Leuven to contribute to both national and international research projects within the area of transport research (e.g., work out adequate solutions for critical mobility issues, making use of state-of-the-art transportation models, evaluation techniques, statistical analysis and data collection). Not only was the job-description interesting, but it was also clear to me that I am a very good match, so I immediately knew that this was the job I want. I also realised that I actually know someone at the company (from cycling), so I could use this connection to get to know more about the work and atmosphere at TML. The things I had heard made me even more interested, so I sent in my CV and motivation letter on the 19th of December.
In the meantime I attended a great Christmas lunch with a dozen of other people at my PhD student’s place (for which I made a beautiful and tasty New York cheesecake with meringue topping), and we also adopted a cat. I am so happy Clio agreed to that, it is so nice to have Filou around :)
The application deadline was at the end of the year, but I already got a reply on the 4th of January, in which I got invited for an interview. The only one I had before was for my PhD, and it was with people I already knew from my ERASMUS stay, so I did not know what to expect… So my first real “corporate” interview was on the 9th of January, and it went very well. It took 1.5 hours, and we talked about a wide range of topics (in English), ranging from what I did during my academic career to my favourite problematic traffic situation in Leuven. I even got to talk about my star atlas project. All in all I came away with a very good feeling, wanting the job even more. Ten (very long) days later I got an email that they decided to hire me! I was so happy that I wanted to go and high-five Filou (after calling Clio and telling her the good news), but he did not really understand why I am jumping around in the living room :D That evening I was official to the yearly dinner of the Institute of Astronomy, so I got to celebrate with champagne too :) I signed my contract on the 22nd, and started working already on the 1st of February (by bringing two home-made cheesecakes, since it was not only my first day but also my 33rd birthday). I have a lot to learn, but it is very interesting, so I am convinced that this is the beginning of another exciting chapter in my life!
This is just the usual summary of recent events, outside of the more important ones that I have already covered in a few separate posts on the blog. One of these is that the blog turned 10 years old in June! I have been writing here for almost 1/3 of my life…
First of all, cycling: after coming home from La Palma I was not really in the mood for cycling for a while, and one of the main reasons was the bad weather. It is not unreasonable to ask for weather that is warm enough to put the winter outfits away at the end of April, right? Luckily while visiting the Netherlands with my parents, spring finally arrived for good, and the temperature in the past two months (at least when I was out riding, with an average of 19.5°C and 19.6°C) was even better than in the same period of the previous 3-4 years! Belgium is in the middle of a quite significant drought right now, so rain was not an issue either. As a result I had my third best month on the bike ever with 1399 kilometres in May (including nearly 11000 metres of elevation gain, which is a best when not counting months when I was riding outside of Belgium, and almost exactly 50 hours on the bike, which is good for a fourth place overall in my cycling career).
I started by doing the Tour de Namur, where after 100 very strong kilometres I lost all my power and felt like dying on the climbs, therefore the remaining more than two hours were really difficult, maybe because I did not bike for almost two weeks before that, or simply because I was way too hot with arm warmers and a merino base layer in 22°C… That was stupid, but it was only 8°C at the start!
Then a week later on the usual Saturday morning Squadra Tornado group ride I had very good legs, so I made some extra plans for the following week. Mainly thanks to taking a day off from work and going to the Ardennes for a 140 km loop over the highest point of Belgium (which by the way was really beautiful, but after 100 km I was dead again, thanks to the wind and the 30°C), this became a week of 475 km on the bike (with 4400 m+). Far from being on the podium, but a good one nevertheless (and likely my best for 2017). Then I was crazy enough to join Willem for a sprint training on one of the evenings, which was on one hand pretty cool (because I love sprints), but on the other hand I was so empty by the end, that when I arrived home Clio was worried that I would pass out on the couch. (I was just fine. Really.) Two days later I rode the Buurthuis Classic with Steven (Willem’s brother, who is probably going to kick my ass too after another year on the bike), but I could still feel the sprints in my legs. To keep things interesting I also did some off road biking here and there, and a few chill rides too, once even involving cake and coffee in Mechelen. Finally, last Saturday I did the first 200+ km ride of the year by doing the longest version of the Ti’Light Classic, extended with biking to the starting point in Tienen and then back home from the finish, making it a nice 219 km day. It was a great ride with good legs, until reaching the 150 km mark I was not tired at all, and only the last 25-30 kilometres were difficult, fighting alone against the headwind. This week it is basically too hot to bike (but I still went out on two evenings).
In the good weather we also had a BBQ (thanks for inviting us Lies and Willem), cocktails in the city centre, ice creams on a boat, and I made my first non no-bake cheesecake (it was delicious). Moreover, we went to cheer on one of Willem’s many races, and I took some photos too, a few of which turned out quite OK ;)
The end of another Premier League season arrived for Liverpool FC and I had a few nervous moments during the last weeks of it (because it would not be the “Liverpool Way” if there was nothing to worry about until the second half of the last game), but at the end everything turned out OK. They kept a clean sheet during the last 4 games while scoring 8 goals and collecting 10 out of the possible 12 points, and the team finished in the Top 4. This means that next season they will be in the Champions League again (assuming they go through the play offs)! Also, the new jersey looks awesome (back to the classical Liverpool red).
Concerning work, I took over the twitter account of the institute, I organised (delegated all the work to others) the open door days, and coordinated our outreach group during the past months. I think we are doing all right, but if the institute had an actual employee to do this as a full time (or 50%) job, things could be improved a lot.
We are leaving on a road trip to Scandinavia soon, and I am planning on posting a few pictures along with a short text every day here, so the blog might get busier for a while again :) Thanks for reading!
After finishing the internal version (ready to be sent to the co-authors) of my first paper on Wednesday evening after weeks of hard work (even on weekends) and iteration with my supervisors, I had to pack in for a full moth, as I was getting ready to leave for two observing runs and for some holidays to the Canary Islands. As always, packing took ages, so I had no sleep at all before my taxi arrived at 5 on the morning. The most difficult part was packing my racing bike to its bike box, because everything had to be placed very carefully, to avoid any possible damage during the flights. (The wheels were placed on top of the whole stuff in separate wheel-bags, but still into the bike box).
At the end (after I had to reopen the box – at which point I was swearing a bit – because I forgot to put the big pump inside…), I had 60 kg of luggage (and I even had to leave my tripod at home, because it really did not fit in anywhere): 32 kg in the bike box (as the box itself weights 12 kg, plus the bike is 8 kg, plus I put in some other stuff too to save space in my normal bag), 22 kg as normal check-in luggage, and 6 kg in my hand luggage. (And I had to pay only 75 € for the bike box, and nothing else. Luckily.) I took the Iberia flight to Madrid at 8 AM, then another from the same company to Tenerife after waiting two and a half hours at the airport. (I still love airports like this one.)
Luckily, as the original plan was only one and a half hour, and I was a bit afraid, that the bike box will not make it in time from one plane to another… A managed to get some sleep during the flights, but I was still extremely tired upon arriving to the Canaries. (And then it came to my mind that I will have to do the same endless packing three times again in the coming month… But OK, I stop complaining.) After collecting my normal luggage, I had to go down one floor to pick up my bike box, but that floor was completely deserted – with only a few lights turned on, endless baggage claim areas with no people around at all, and then, at the very end of the area, my bike box rolled out on its own, alone. With no personnel or anyone around. It was a bit scary… Then as I stepped outside, I was shocked by the 28°C air temperature, so I took off some clothes (:P) and headed to the taxi area as fast as I could. There, the taxi drivers were the ones under a slight shock, as they realized, that all this luggage was mine, and there was no other person traveling with me :D But no worries, everything fit in perfectly (with the rear seats leaned forward), and we were on our long way up to the observatory in no time. It was still early afternoon when I arrived and checked in at the Residencia of the Observatorio del Teide. (I might consider learning Spanish instead of Dutch, if I want to get a job after my PhD as a support astronomer somewhere…) I even met two Hungarians, which was a nice surprise! As I was extremely tired, I had not done anything later that day, except that I assembled my bike, and unpacked all my bags. Yesterday I woke up at around midday, and after a nice lunch, I went for a relatively short acclimatization ride on the afternoon. (GPS details here.) My policy is the following: as I am on a work trip here, I only go cycling on those days, when I have no observing duties on the following night (because I might be in a good shape, but staying up all night and working with expensive equipment is not something you want to do tired).
First I went down to 2000 meter towards the NE (passing the famous colorful curves of the TF-24 road – see picture above), than I turned back, and climbed up almost to the point where I started, but as I felt still quite strong and I had still a lot of water in my bottles, I decided to ride a bit to the other direction on TF-21 towards the Teide volcano. It was really nice, with slopes between 4 % and 12 % (with 7-8 % most of the time).
I made two short videos about the roads and the scenery from the bike, which are not the best quality (as I had only my compact camera with me), but they can be seen here and here. It is worth checking them anyway, as you can see how my new cycling glasses fit me :) I think they are extremely cool ;D The road quality is not the best everywhere, but it is generally OK. There are silk-smooth parts, and there are places, where one have to be a bit more careful… After 50 km and 1000 meter of elevation gain, I arrived back well before lunch, so I had time to take a shower and check my mail before I joined the others at the table. Later that night I tried to stay up as late as possible (watching TV series on my MacBook) to shift my rhythm from day to nigh-time, but I had to go to bed already at 3 AM. Still I think it is OK, as I managed to sleep till midday today, so by the end of the forthcoming night, the shift will be complete. Now I am praying for good weather, because the last nights were a complete disaster for the previous observers, and we need data badly…