Monday, July 27, 2009

Like in a Painting

On many trips in Holland, I've more than once felt like I was looking at a painting. Saturday was no different in this regard.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Iranian Conflict Viewed from the Netherlands

Unless you live in a major population center in the United States, I think it is easy to view many world events as isolated and faraway. The conflict in Iran, for instance, may well not touch your life beyond the appearance of headlines on the newscasts that you watch. Iran remains a mysterious and hostile place in the minds of Americans, but much of this dissolves when the people and their government are separated as they have been recently.

The peoples' protests for freedom in Iran, when viewed through the prism of the populous and internationally-flavored Randstad area of the Netherlands, have proven inescapable and highly intriguing for me. There have been frequent demonstrations close by, including in Delft. Here, I see the struggle far from its origin, but still "up-close" in a way, including: the ongoing difficulty for Iranian expats to reconcile their national pride with the grave injustices that they see done to their countrymen; their yearning for freedom and desire to support its cause while cautiously clinging to the ideal of a safe and prosperous life in Iran even under the current regime; and of course the contention between religious moderation and Islamic fundamentalism, which is at the core of conflicts far beyond just those within the Islamic Republic itself.

Yesterday in Amsterdam there was another such demonstration. There is nothing particularly exceptional about this one (which I happened upon through CNN's iReport), but it does show that there are still large numbers of Iranian expats attempting to do the work for their countrymen here - in a free country - where their voices will not be silenced.

The Maeslant Barrier

The main point of my bike trip yesterday was to see some components of the Deltawerken (Delta Works), a massive public works project designed to prevent flooding in the Netherlands. It was conceived after the great flood of 1953, in which massive property damage was done and more than eighteen hundred people were killed.

The ongoing battle between the Dutch and the sea is well documented. Some 27% of the land in the Netherlands is below sea level, including Delft. Much of this is polderland, meaning it has actually been reclaimed from the sea. In 1986, for instance, the province of Flevoland was established where previously only sea had been. You may have heard: God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.

Compare the two maps of the Netherlands below; the first is a current map, and the other is what the Netherlands would look like without protection from the sea.

The Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) connects the Europoort of Rotterdam - the second busiest port in the world after the Port of Shanghai - with the sea. Meanwhile, Rotterdam and the surrounding area must be protected from flooding. Dike reinforcements along the Nieuwe Waterweg were the original plan for protecting Rotterdam, but these were costly, slow, and in the 70's elicited protests from people who didn't want dikes in urban areas. So instead, in the 80's the idea of a moving storm surge barrier grew legs. In 1997, the Maeslantkering (Maeslant Barrier) was finally commissioned. You can see it below.

View Maeslant Barrier in a larger map

The Maeslant Barrier is a most impressive structure. When open as pictured above (which is 99% of the time since major storm surges happen only once every decade or so), the barrier sits in dry docks on both side of the shore. To close the barrier, the docks are flooded and the barrier itself floats. Each part of the barrier pivots closed around two massive (10 m in diameter) ball joints, the biggest in the world. (You can see it closed here.) Once the two sides of the barrier have met at the middle, compartments within them are flooded and the barrier sinks to the bed of the waterway, sealing it off. To reopen, the compartments are pumped dry and then the two barrier segments are pivoted back into their docking areas. (I learned all this from a very cool scale model at the Keringhuis, a museum located at the foot of the barrier.)

Finally, here are some pictures, which aren't very good because you have to be in a helicopter to have a prayer at getting this thing in frame...

Ball joint about which one side of the barrier pivots.

A look at the Maeslant Barrier down the Nieuwe Waterweg.

Fietstocht naar de Hoek van Holland

Tired of being cooped up in front of my computer all the time, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather today and bike down to het Hoek van Holland (the Hook of Holland). It was a very nice ride that involved considerable improvisational skills since I promptly lost my map after arriving at the destination. Along the way I saw the usual farmland, cows, and windmills, but also got to see some key parts of the Delta Project, the massive public works that keep the Netherlands dry. More on that in the next post. For now, simply enjoy all 42 miles of my route (complete with some commentary) below. (The start/end is at the far right and the initial route was to the southwest.)

View Hoek van Holland Bike Trip in a larger map

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Goodbye Copenhagen

The last thing Laura and I did while in Copenhagen was to visit the local hippie commune, Christiania. It was founded in 1971, and we had heard it was a venerable example of community togetherness and free-spirited living worthy of a sightseeing stroll. It turned out, however, to be perhaps the nastiest, seediest piece of earth I have ever strolled across, which is amazing given the fact that Copenhagen is an otherwise exceedingly clean and beautiful city. It was absolutely covered in garbage and seemed to have nothing to offer but the sale of chintzy drug paraphernalia. (Soft drugs were "tolerated" there until 2004, at which time the government started cracking down...probably because the place is a train wreck.) As a result, we have no pictures. You're not missing anything.

The pictures we do have are some aerial photos of Copenhagen I took from the winding tower of the Vor Frelsers Kirke ("Yet Another Church", at right) that is located right outside Christiania in the Christianshavn neighborhood of town. The difference between the two neighborhoods is like night and day. In the aerial photo below, you can't see Christiania's filth because it is buried beneath the trees.

Here you see a nice city skyline, including the Marble Church at upper right.

Finally, you can see the waterfront of Christianshavn pretty well in this one.

Laura and I enjoyed Copenhagen very much. As I wrote in the first post, it was a very regal- and proud-looking city. I also feel that the public transportation in Copenhagen, particularly to the suburbs, is unmatched in its style and comfort compared to anywhere else we've been in Europe. It was a nice visit!

Carlsberg Brewery

As you may know, Carlsberg is "Probably the Best Beer in the World." The original Carlsberg Brewery - Probably the Best Brewery in the World - is in Copenhagen, so how could we not go check it out?

The Carlsberg complex in Copenhagen is very big. Here's one mammoth gate...

...and here's another. This is the famous elephant gate, whose inspiration comes from a similarly hard-working elephant at Minerva Square in Rome. This elephant is one of four carved from granite. One of the elephants features a swastika, which was a symbol of good luck until the Nazis adopted it. Carlsberg used the swastika symbol in its advertising until that time and then wisely retired it - except where carved in granite, anyway. You can see that Laura and I wisely chose a non-swastika baring elephant for this picture.

We took the brewery tour, which of course they say is Probably the Best Brewery Tour in the World, though it was considerably less flashy than the Guinness or Heineken versions. One fact I found very interesting is that Carlsberg does a huge percentage of its business in the UK - probably more even than in Denmark. This meshes nicely with our observation in London that Carlsberg was everywhere.

At the end of the tour, we happily redeemed our tickets for free beers; you see Laura enjoying her beer below.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Other City Sightseeing and Changing of the Guard

Laura and I spent a weekend seeing the sights in Copenhagen. Here is a recap of the best things we saw.

We visited Rosenborg Castle, the home of the most famous of Danish sovereigns, King Christian IV. He ruled from 1588 to 1648 and is remembered for his reform-mindedness. In addition to the beautifully appointed rooms in the interior, Rosenborg Castle also houses the crown jewels. At right you see King Christian IV's crown, which was splendid indeed. Below is Rosenborg Castle itself.

We also enjoyed walking the waterfront in Copenhagen. Here you see one of many ships from the harbor. The Danish flag flew proudly over all of them.

Not far from the waterfront is Frederik's Church, also known as The Marble Church (Marmorkirken in Danish). Having visited more churches in Europe than I care to count, they all tend to run together. However, this church was a welcomed change of pace with its imposing but tasteful marble interior. The words you see written on the church are Danish for "The Lord's Word is Eternal."

Not far from the church stands Amalienborg Palace (the royal residence in Copenhagen), where each day at noon there is the changing of the Royal Guard. When we visited London back in December, we missed their version because it was too cold and crowded; we found the Danish version much more agreeable.

Finally, Laura and I also spent an evening at Tivoli Gardens, the Danish amusement park right in the heart of Copenhagen. According to Wikipedia, it opened in 1843 and is thus the second oldest amusement park in the world (after another Danish amusement park). Tivoli has a nice atmosphere, and in fact a lot of people pay reduced entree fees just to walk around and enjoy the gardens and eating establishments.

We of course couldn't completely pass up the rides, which were predominantly of the state-fair-throw-up variety. Here we are about to shoot off on one of their roller coasters.

The Many Statues of Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a very attractive city, not least of which because of its ample ornamentation. There are statues and fountains everywhere that depict everything from fictional characters to national heroes to Greek gods to animals to Bible stars. You'll see below just a small sampling of all the fantastic statuary in the city. (Apparently Laura and I weren't the only ones to notice this feature of Copenhagen - check out a more complete Copenhagen statue gallery on Wikipedia.)

There is a star among the many statues in Copenhagen, though. Perched atop a rock in Copenhagen harbor outside the park Langelinie sits the famous bronze depiction of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid.

Hans Christian Andersen was Danish, and the fairy tale was published in 1837, but it was not until the story attracted the interest of Carl Jacobsen (of Carlsberg Brewery fame) that the statue was commissioned. It was completed in 1913 by Edvard Eriksen. It's a nice piece of artwork, though you might be surprised that the statue is very small - just over 4 ft.

After nearly 100 years of sitting atop that rock, I guess the Little Mermaid is getting bored - she's on her way to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Walk in Copenhagen

If I could pick a single word to describe Copenhagen (København in Danish), I would say "regal." It is a beautiful and proud city, with Danish flags flying everywhere, more statues than I could count, and very clean and proud architectural design.

On the day of my arrival in Denmark, I ventured with a fellow classmate from Lyngby (the site of DTU) to Copenhagen to have a look around. We had little time, so this first trip primarily involved walking the Strøget, a famous street that is supposedly the longest pedestrian shopping area in Europe. Below is a picture from a square at its end, Kongens Nytorv.

There was an exhibit on the Strøget that caught my attention (and Laura's too when she arrived for the weekend) entitled Signspotting, which featured reproductions of the world's weirdest signage. This included signs with double entendres, irony, and tons of poor translations. Some of our pictures are below, but you can see many more at

With rain clouds bearing down on the city, I ended my walk with a free tour at the Danish Resistance Museum, which was really excellent. The tour detailed the Danish government's official "collaboration" (as it was called) with the Germans, which was a means of protecting the people; they essentially provided just enough support to the Germans to remain mostly autonomous during German occupation. Slowly, of course, things deteriorated, martial law was enacted, and a significant resistance movement was born, mostly involving sabotage of railways, ships, and other infrastructure important to the occupying forces.

There's a saying that Denmark is like The Netherlands ... but with two more months of winter. The similarities are there for sure: bikes are used as a primary mode of transportation, there's a similar international flavor to the country, infrastructure is similar, etc. Based on the weekend weather in June - high 50's to low 60's with buckets of rain - I think the second part of the statement is accurate as well.

Beyond Lisbon...Denmark!

While I was attending the engineering conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Laura did most of the sightseeing. She'll be writing about that as soon as she gets everything settled in Gainesville.

In the meantime, I'm going to skip ahead another week. After returning from Lisbon, I was back in Delft for a day before heading on Tuesday, June 9th to Denmark Technical University (DTU) in the greater Copenhagen area for a graduate course. The course stretched over the weekend, at which time Laura joined me for some sightseeing in Copenhagen.

But before showing our pictures from the wonderful city of Copenhagen, the topic of the course I took - topology optimization - is sufficiently cool and accessible that I'm going to tell you what it is.

In the design of structures, a common goal is to produce a structure that will carry a given load without material failure or excessive deflection. You might have some kind of design domain (the light blue/purple area below) and know where you want to connect the structure to something else (the green triangles) and where the load will be (the red arrow). A solid block (like the light blue/purple) might suffice, but that's heavy and wasteful. So the question a designer needs to answer is, "Where should the holes go?"

Well, the TopOpt group at DTU, to put it simply, is the world's leading authority on how to use computer algorithms to figure out where the holes should go. In the animation below, you can actually see the algorithm progressively remove material until the final best (or optimal) part is produced! If you missed the animation, click on the image and you can watch it again. (If you're using Firefox, you may then need to hold 'Shift' while clicking the 'Refresh' button.)

The TopOpt Group at DTU offers some very nice web tools (which I used to produce the pictures above), so you can try it for yourself. It was a real pleasure to learn about this topic from all of the very nice people at DTU!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Eternal Moonwalk

This has only a marginal connection with the topics of our blog, but it's too cool not to post. Go visit the Michael Jackson Eternal Moonwalk, where you can see videos of people from all over the world doing [mostly terrible] moonwalks.

There are tons from the Netherlands: just search for Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, Utrecht, Eindhoven, or any of the other big cities. My personal Netherlands favorite is the bike moonwalk (#910) in front of the I amsterdam sign on the Museumplein in Amsterdam. Don't forget to add sound effects with the SDFJKL keys!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ultimate Frisbee Nederland Stijl

I'm an avid Ultimate Frisbee player, and since arriving here in the Netherlands have been playing regularly with the TU Delft team, Force Elektro. On Tuesday, the Netherlands radio station FunX came and did a feature on the team and the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. The video is below (in Dutch). Enjoy!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Arrivederci Italia! Olá Portugal

Between Capri, Mt. Vesuvius, and Pompeii, our last days in Italy were awesome. It's a beautiful country with friendly people, incredible history, lots of sunshine, and - of course - gelato on every corner. (It's not just anywhere in the world you can get, for instance, ricotta pear or balsamic ice cream flavors...)

On the morning of May 31st, though, it was time to depart. But we didn't head back to Delft just yet. A presentation I had been accepted to give at an engineering conference took us next to Lisbon, Portugal for a week. Olá Portugal!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vesuvius and Pompeii

On our very last day in Italy, Laura and I did something that's going to sound particularly bad-ass - we climbed an active volcano. Below you see Mt. Vesuvius hovering menacingly over the greater Naples area.

Yes, we walked the rocky slopes of an active volcano, and looked down into its steaming caldera from the very top - how many people can say that? In the picture of Laura below, you can see a steam released from a vent inside the caldera.

Mt. Vesuvius has erupted many times in its history (most recently in 1944), but the most famous eruption is undoubtedly that of 79 AD when it buried the nearby Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii was buried under 30-60 feet of volcanic ash. A view like the below probably looks pretty good until the ground starts shaking, the sky turns black, and fiery debri starts raining down, huh? After the eruption, Pompeii was forgotten for more than 1500 years before rediscovery, and then serious excavations commenced almost 150 years later still in 1748.

The violent eruption stopped Pompeii dead in its tracks, resulting in a ruined city that was literally frozen in time. Many residents were buried alive beneath the volcanic ash and rock, which left behind hollow spaces after the bodies decomposed. Some clever archaeologists made casts of the spaces during excavation, and now tourists can actually see the contorted poses of horrified Pompeiians preserved forever in plaster. But that's not all: Roman homes, "fast food" joints, and even the local brothel were all preserved very well, all things considered.

The most astounding part about Pompeii was seeing the standard of living enjoyed by the Romans (specifically the middle-class Pompeiians) nearly two millennia ago; it was almost like walking into an episode of the Flintstones, where everything is similar to what we enjoy today but decidely lower-tech. They had running water, large homes, excellent roads, interior decorations, etc. For instance, inside the House of the Tragic Poet is the famous Cave Canem (Beware of Dog) mosaic/entry mat...

... or the statue of the Dancing Faun in Pompei's largest home:

We also found the Roman brothel extremely entertaining, both for its intact menu of services and the makeup of the individual rooms - complete with solid stone bed (below). Some of the artifacts dug up in Pompeii, in fact, still make archaeologists blush to this day.

Pompeii is one of Italy's most visited sites, and we certainly can see why. It was incredible to walk the streets of such a well-preserved testament of Roman life. (More pictures are on Flickr.)