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Serious musings

Laser Building in Germany

Just arrived from the airport.


As I've said elsewhere, I'm heading to Germany to complete a sensor system I've been working on for the past year with Prof. Scott Sanders, supported by LaVision, GmbH. I've covered the project-specific details and have a couple documents here. I fly out of Chicago this Saturday (5/30) and will arrive in Frankfurt on Sunday morning. Monday (6/1) is a national holiday, Whit Monday, so I'll spend Sunday and part of Monday exploring Frankfurt before taking a train to Göttingen.

Once in Göttingen, I'll build the sensor and explain the analysis code. LaVision will then take the prototype and reduce it to a smaller form factor and optimize its function. I'll return to Frankfurt next Tuesday, 6/9, and will arrive back in Madison Wednesday afternoon.

I took a bunch of pictures and posted them to Flickr; a few are included in the description below.

Trip to Germany

Saturday morning I took a Van Galder bus to Chicago and checked into my flight to Newark, NJ. There was no one else in my row on the Boeing 757 and I enjoyed flying around New York and flying over the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. I arrived around 4:00 and expected to have a two hour layover before heading to Germany via Air India. Since I was switching airlines I needed to check into Air India, whereupon my layover disappeared.

My flight from Newark to Frankfurt was only the first leg of an Air India flight to India. Since New York is a moderately large metropolis and India is a bit far away, flights are not commonly offered. As such, the check-in line was quite crowded with families traveling or returning to India. I spent ~45 mins in the check-in, after ensuring that I did not need to transfer my luggage from my Chicago flight.

Now, Newark is a bit of a weird airport in that each terminal has its own security check in; there is no secured passage between the terminals. As such, I rejoined my fellow passengers in the security line for another twenty minutes. Throughout check-in and security, I got the impression that Air India paid less for its berthing and terminal space than all of the other airlines. Things just didn't flow as smoothly as one would expect in a major airport. Perhaps that's how they offer a $360 roundtrip flight from Chicago to Frankfurt...

I had hoped to eat supper but only had time to grab chips, a muffin, a croissant, and a soda before boarding. Since I was departing in Frankfurt, while the plane refueled, my seat assignment was changed to an exit row, giving me more room for my right leg but less for my left (the door opening mechanism protrudes from the cabin wall). The flight itself was pretty uneventful and authentically Indian. I chose trout for my supper and had a croissant for breakfast.

We arrived at the Frankfurt am Main (on the Main river) Flughafen at 8 am Sunday (6/1), right on schedule. It was a simple matter to find my luggage and a train to the Hauptbanhof (train station). I got a little confused by their train station naming and nearly got off at the stadium in SW Frankfurt, but maps stored on my phone prevailed -- not enough buildings, tracks, or people.

Reaching the station, I was impressed. I knew that trains were widely used in Europe - and planned to use them for all transportation within Germany - but it was not until I saw the Hauptbanhof that I began to realize their national importance. I think that an institution's physical presence is a good indicator of its regional and national importance. If it is impressive then the people feel it is a good use of public funds; if it also functional, then it shows that the institution understands its purpose and the needs of its users. Trains are continuously arriving and departing, shops are open for any travel need, announcements are multi-lingual, and people are hustling about. Taken together, the importance of the rail system to Germany's infrastructure is clear.

McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Subway are everywhere, often within blocks of each other. Soda is pretty scarce, Coke is commonly available and Sprite and Pepsi are rare, but I found no others. Instead, Germans seem to prefer water and apple juice with gas (carbonated / seltzer).

Once the cool factor passed, I looked for some food. Thankfully (?), Germany is overrun with McDonalds, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, and Subways. I was hungry for a burger (my supper plan for Newark) and went to Burger King at ~9:30. Since I don't know an ounce of German, I had one English/German travel guide & dictionary in my pocket and a different version in my backpack. I had saved a map of the route between the train station and hotel on my phone and tried to check in.

Frankfurt - 6/1


I reached my hotel at 10:30 but my room wasn't ready, since check-in started at 15:00. I checked my suitcase with the front desk and picked up some more complete city maps. With maps and dictionary in hand, I went for a walk around the city.

When I was setting up the trip I had noticed a park relatively near my hotel and headed that direction. Consulting my maps, I saw that the park actually extended around the entire city center in a three mile semi-circle, beginning and ending at the river. Camera in hand I began. It felt real good to stretch the legs and the new scenery kept me awake, since I had only slept for three hours during the flight and needed to absorb the seven hour differential.

The park was cool and fairly busy for a Sunday morning. Biking is quite common (similar to Madison, but the roads are built more with bikers in mind and for smaller cars) and most people were getting some exercise. There was quite a lot a vegetation and these big trees which I don't recall seeing in America. Anyway, see the Flickr tour for more. I kept walking in the park till I reached the river and walked over some downtown bridges and along the waterfront. I tried to see St. Bartholomeus' Cathedral but they were holding service when I stopped by. It was about 13:00 and I headed back to the hotel, having circumnavigated Frankfurt. My room was ready and once I sat down the rest of the afternoon and evening were lost.

Frankfurt -> Göttingen - 6/2

I slept well and was ready to go by ~9. I would be heading to Göttingen in the afternoon and wanted to explore Frankfurt a bit more. I walked through the heart of Frankfurt but most of the shops were closed I went through the Zeil, a cool downtown mall with an innovative roof (you may have heard of it...) and continued towards the river. Frankfrut was holding a festival, Turnfest, along the river and in a historic downtown square. While there I didn't know what was being celebrated/remembered, but apparently Turnfest is the world’s largest leisure sports and competition festival. Most of the activity took place in the city fairgrounds so what I saw was a small part of the festival, but cool nonetheless. I toured the Paulschirche (St. Paul's Church and German seat of government in the 1800s) and a historic building with lots of flags. There was a stage set up in a public square near the Paulschirche and a band was playing. It sounded cool and as I continued to walk through I saw what appeared to be church service leaflets. By this point it was about 10 and was turning into a beautiful, mid-70s day. It was all in German so I started back towards the hotel, needing to check out of the hotel by 11.

Picking up my suitcase I went to the station and purchased an InterCity Express (ICE) ticket to Göttingen. I had a simple salami, cheese, and hard-boiled egg sandwich and Coke while waiting for my train. Göttingen is about two hours north of Frankfurt by train, in the middle of the country. The train was pretty nice (leagues above Amtrak & moving twice as fast) but I must've missed something when purchasing the ticket, as I twice had to give up my seat to someone who reserved it. I'm still not sure how or why they reserved the seat but was a little annoyed to be bumped by someone getting on two stops after Frankfurt, especially since there were open seats...

Heading up to Göttingen, nice country

Anyway, the German country side is nice with lots of rolling hills, occasional villages, and a good mix of forest and farmland, quite similar to Wisconsin. From a distance the only difference is architectural, with Germans preferring closely-spaced, clay-tiled houses to American suburban and rural sprawl.

Probably a third of the size of Frankfurt, Göttingen also has a quaint, bustling city center contained within the old city wall. I searched the station for a good map but finding none, started toward my hotel relying on my cellphone map. I stayed the week in the Hotel Kasseler Hof, chosen by my hosts for its close proximity to the city center. The room was simple; the double bed was indeed two, single mattresses placed side by side with separate sheets and covers for each...the Ramada was the same way. The breakfast was much more wholesome (bread, sandwich meats, fruit, baked green bean bundles wrapped in bacon...) than most continental breakfasts in America. While I'm on food, Coke (and Pepsi) taste sweeter in Germany, possibly due to the predominance of carbonated water (with gas). I didn't get used to this and you can imagine my surprise when my apple juice was also carbonated.

When in Frankfurt I had some difficulties with my laptop's AC power adapter which I attributed to my international adapter. Reaching Göttingen, I verified my international adapter and realized that the power adapter had indeed been broken in flight. Hoping for a bad solder weld or a broken wire, I took the adapter apart (keychain leatherman...) but to no avail. Without my laptop/internet, I picked up a map from the front desk and took a walk about the city. Since it was still Whit Monday, few shops were open but the weather was nice and ice cream made a good supper.

LaVision - 6/3-5

I met the project manager, Thomas, at 9 on Tuesday morning and went to LaVision to begin work. In general, LaVision takes optical sensing systems and integrates them into simple and stable laboratory instruments. In the context of my project, LaVision desires to reduce the source/sensor complexity and integrate the components into simple-to-connect containers so that a non-spectroscopist can use the sensor. They have a nice balance between lab and office space, allowing the various groups to develop and work closely with new sensor systems.

Tuesday through Thursday I spent assembling the laser of parts we had preordered. Thankfully nothing was broken outright and of the two issues that appeared, one is largely solved and we have some ideas for the second. The main purpose for the trip was to bring the project team up to speed on the various component choices in the light source and for me to share some of the operation characteristics of the system. Friday we went over the data acquisition and temeprature-finding routines; this currently consists of four independent steps which will hopefully be rolled into one, real-time temperature finding routine. This was the most difficult part as I have comparatively little experience in molecular absorption and had not recently thought through the various operations in the temperature finding and simulation codes. Things came together and I believe I answered their immediate questions (they all speak English well). I'm sure that there will be more questions as development continues but I believe that the broad objectives are well understood.

LaVision also had an HP AC adapter so I had power and internet whilst at their facility, but the hotel internet proved intermittent. Skype was especially encumbered, it seemed as if the hotel had a bandwidth limit and any transatlantic video chat quickly hit that limit. This system failure was less than graceful as it prevented me from logging on during the next two days, eliminating any personal internet usage (it'd be a bit much to be posting to Flikr/facebook while at LaVision).

Internet issues aside, Thomas took me out for supper and a beer almost every night (and never to McDonalds/BK/Subway) and I got to learn a bit more about Göttingen and life in Germany.

Berlin - 6/7

Arriving in Berlin

I took Saturday easy but planned a trip to Berlin for Sunday. The Deutsche Bahn has a nice weekend program, an unlimited number of train rides for €37. Leaving Göttingen at 6:30, I took three regional trains up to Berlin. There's a lot of history in Germany and I enjoyed traveling through the former East Germany on my way to Berlin. Perhaps it was the route choice, but most of the small towns we went through seemed to have stopped growing. In many ways it is the same as what's happening in northern Wisconsin / the UP; where younger generations are leaving their elders for larger cities and modern convenience. Prosperity returned as we approached Berlin, arriving at the Hauptbanhof at 13:45.


After taking pictures of the terminal, I stopped at Pizza Hut for lunch. Finishing, I headed southeast, across the Spree River and past the Marie-Elisabeth-Lueders-Haus (part of the parliament complex). Pausing for a few pictures at the Reichstag, the traditional seat of parliament, I reached the Brandenburg gate and spent a little while reading the gate's history. There were music stages on both sides of the gate and lots of people around. Vendors lined the first half mile of the Straße des 17. Juni (commemorating "the uprising of the East Berliners on 17 June, 1953" - wikipedia) and I slowly made my way through the stands, heading west.

Nearing the Siegessä wasn't exceptionally bright, so I'm not sure why this looks painful...

I walked through parts of the Tiergarten and happened upon a concert at the Carillon. At 60m, the Siegessäule (Berlin Victory Column) dominates the Tiergarten skyline, so I continued that direction. Since it was still mid afternoon, I bought a ticket and climbed up the column through an interior stairwell. About 5m up, an intericate mosaic covers the central column and encircled by large, red granite columns; see the photostream for close ups. Continuing upward, the circular stairway becomes more like a ladder, especially when passing other visitors. I reached the top and took in the surroundings, appreciating the extent of the Tiergarten and all the traffic/activity. It was about 16:00, so I finished looking around and descended the column.

I was now southwest of the train station, so I walked along the Spree and past the Bellevue Palace. I couldn't tour the building or see any interior pictures since it is the President's residence, but both the exterior and extent of the building make it worthy of 'palace.' Continuing along the Spree, I passed the House of World Cultures and the Chancellery. As is evident from the pictures, both the Chancellery and Parliament are impressive buildings; they face each other across a broad square to the north of the Tiergarten.

My train departed at 17:10 so I grabbed a danish pastry and a soda for supper. I had forgotten my book at the hotel and bought a German newspaper that recapped May news stories in English. This was written from the German perspective and included a number of opinion pieces, I enjoyed reading the authors' take on events in Germany and America, as well as the special on Indian/Pakistani relations.

My return trip stopped in Madeburg, Braunschweig and Kreiensen, a west-then-south route. I had an hour in Barunschweig and stopped at a Subway for some cookies (~20:00) and went on a short walk near the station. The city also had a large downtown park and, had it been earlier in the day, I would have walked through. Returning to the station I found that my train to Kreiensen was delayed 15 minutes, adding a little anxiety to the trip since I originally had a 20 minute layover. After hurrying to the Kreiensen-Göttingen gate, I found that that train was also delayed an indeterminate amount of time. About 30 minutes later the train came and I arrived in Göttingen at 00:30 Monday morning. All in all, it was a pretty condensed walk around Berlin, but an enjoyable use of my Sunday.

LaVision - 6/8-9

After too little sleep and some surprise at my weekend trip (on the part of my hosts at LaVision), we prepared a simple flame test for the sensor. We were unable to independently verify the flame's temperature, but I was able to show how the acquisition and analysis pieces came together and get some preliminary temperatures by the end of Monday. I spent Tuesday morning summarizing the sensor operation, step-by-step and concluded the workday with a final demonstration.

To complete my German experience, Thomas took me to the Paulaner for some Bavarian food Monday night. My main dish was three meats: Leberkäse (liver-cheese that contained neither...sort of like ground ham), Weißwurst (a white sausage), and some other kind of sausage. In with these were some very good potatoes, lots of Sauerkraut, and Weißbier (light, almost sweet) to wash it down. It was a very good, filling, and greasy meal.

An aside: I gave you this amount of detail since many of you know that I have simpler tastes than most. Suffice it to say, I did not starve while in Germany and ate very similar meals to what I do in the states (calling it American would be improper, since the only truly American dish is a burger). If anything, the places that I visited had less food diversity, lacking Mexican and Chinese restaurants.

I caught a 17:20 ICE train and was in Frankfurt by 19:40, whereupon I checked back into the Ramada. It was still a bit early so I headed out towards downtown for some supper and a store or two. I eventually settled on ice cream (again, I'm not sure why it tasted so good for supper...) but found that every store closed at 20:00. Exactly. It was still light out and a good amount of people were walking around, but by 20:05 most lights were out and employees headed home.

Return Flight - 6/10

My flight departed Frankfurt at 8:05, so I was up at 5:00 to catch a 6:00 train to the airport. Reaching the Hauptbanhof, I prevailed against the ticket machine and searched for my train. My first choice train was departing gate 103 so I searched the station but only found gates 1-25. After 103 supposedly departed, I checked the route tables and realized that #22 would take me to the airport, departing in 5 minutes. I boarded the train and was a bit discomforted by my fellow passengers' lack of suitcases; as the train left the station the train began turning northwest and I watched the southwest track I though I was on recede from view... Getting off at the first stop in northwest Frankfurt, I searched for another train back to the Hauptbanhof. Upon returning, our train went below ground and I emerged from gate 103, one of the subterranean gates that I saw no indication of in the main terminal. Studying the route information for the third time, I realized that my #22 train to the airport only ran on Sundays and, enlightened, found a train that would take me to the airport. This train departed at 6:38 for arrival at the airport by 6:52. So, where I had intended to have two hours for check in I now had an hour.

Thankfully, most passengers were already on the Air India flight from Frankfurt to Newark (having originated in India) and the check-in and security lines were relatively short. I reached the plane ten minutes before takeoff but was unable to get any snacks or fill my water bottle (empty for security). It was cloudy beneath us for the entire trip back, making it very bright outside the plane which helped to keep me awake. We arrived in Newark right on time but my two hour layover was consumed retrieving my suitcase and checking into my American Airlines flight to Chicago. As before, I had 20 minutes before boarding, during which I found a cream cheese danish and finally filled my water bottle. I intended to take the VanGalder bus back to Madison but was a little worried about the timing; the flight was scheduled to arrive at 13:50 and the bus was departing at 14:30. If the baggage claim was quick it'd work out, if it was slow or we were otherwise delayed in the air I'd have to wait for the 15:30 bus and not arrive in Madison till 19:00. Thankfully (and I was) things worked out and I made the early bus to Madison.

Back in Madison, I met my mom for supper at the Nitty before returning to my apartment to pack for Florida. So ends my trip to Germany. To summarize, I read three books, two magazines, and a newspaper, used five German words, built a laser, took my AC adapter apart, ate and drank, took lots of pictures, walked over a mile in four German cities, rode trains for 15 hours, did some LabVIEW coding, saw historical places, and had a great time. I got quite a lot out of this trip and now better understand and appreciate commercial research and development. Moreover, I found that I could go to a new country and get around reasonably well. Knowing German would have made the trip much more enjoyable and I'd have been able to avert a few travel hiccups, but I thoroughly enjoyed this experience.

Thanks to my host LaVision, especially Thomas Berg and Olaf Thiele.