How to: Forge metal

A couple of years ago now I taught myself how to do rudimentary metal forging using videos from the internet and the occasional digitised book. Here’s the summary of how to do it if anyone else wants to have a go!

Warning: Learning to forge things in metal is dangerous, you should proceed with caution at all times. In particular you risk setting fire to things (including yourself), burns, self inflicted stab wounds and other nasty things if you aren’t sensible. 

Safety items you should have to try forging: A head mounted welding face mask (you will need both hands). Flameproof overalls (I use Nomex ones, also remember to wear natural fibres underneath just in case). Leather welding gloves. Tongs for manipulating very hot things. A face mask to protect you from projecting molten metal is also a good idea. A leather apron can also be useful as it’s comparatively resistant to molten metal. A bucket of water handy is also a very wise precaution.

Step 1: Decide what you want to forge.


This weekend I decided to forge a moon pendant, based on the above sketch.

Step 2: Carve it in wax. I used a tea light from IKEA, vanilla scent, however you can also buy proper (harder) carving wax from specialists. If you want high detail, this is a must! You can also buy it in pre-formed ring blanks. Be careful when cutting the wax, I’ve previously cut myself quite badly doing this using an Xacto craft knife, but fortunately it’s healed now!

Step 3: Cast the mould. For this you should find a tin can (aluminium or steel) that’s big enough to hold the wax piece. If you’re only detailing on one side then an open mould is fine, stick something on the top of your model to allow it to be rested on top of the can. Otherwise, for more complicated castings such as rings, you should include a sprue and a cone on the top of the mould to allow you to pour in the liquid metal. To make the mould, I used pure plaster of Paris, however you can/should also add some sand to improve the strength of the mould. It’s a good idea to tap the side of the mould vigorously to ensure that any bubbles on the wax model get dislodged. Ideally you should put the mould under a vacuum to remove all air bubbles, but vacuum pumps are hard to come by. I’ve managed without one so far.

Step 4: Wait for the mould to dry. There’s no shortcut for this.

Step 5: Bake out the mould to melt the wax and ensure that the plaster/plaster+sand mixture is fully cured. You might want to build a mini kiln for this, here’s mine. 20170722_195429

It is constructed from a concrete air brick, sawn in half and then drilled to create a cavity and a connection point for a heat gun. It has a top half which is the same, but with a small vent hole instead of the inlet. Here is a picture of the completed kiln.


Note the small hole on the top for the hot air to come out of. I placed the cured mould, complete with the wax model, upside down in here for about 30 minutes to bake it and melt out all the wax. You could probably just pour in the molten metal, but baking out seems to be more reliable.

Step 6: Whilst the mould is baking, you can set up your furnace. I used an arc welder, since it’s easy to get hold of and runs on easy to handle electricity rather than anything chemical (coal, propane, etc.). To turn the arc welder into a tool for forging, you should remove both the ground clip and the welding rod holder and replace them with large metal mole grips. These can be used to hold the electrodes and/or a crucible. I would recommend using a graphite crucible and graphite rods extracted from 6V ‘lantern’ batteries – be careful not to crack them while extracting them from the 4 zinc housings within the battery. It’s also worth noting that if you obtain them this way, they will be coated in a paraffin type wax which will burn off after the first time you strike an arc.


Here is my ‘workbench’ you can see the arc welder is the yellow box at the end, with both electrodes replaced with mole grips. I used a small part of the concrete air-brick as a stand for the crucible, here’s a close up also complete with my cracked crucible which I disposed of after this casting and the mole grips holding carbon rods:


Step 7: Melt the metal. For this step I can highly recommend using some borax as a flux, you can buy it (normally) from your local chemist. It’s not the nicest of chemicals, even though it was used as washing powder in the 19th century, so use sparingly (a light dusting in the crucible is plenty I find) and handle with care. Next add your metal in small chunks that fit in the crucible. For this project I used some silver elements I had left over from another project. Silver is cheap, at least compared to Gold, and melts a lot easier than Copper. Beware of metals containing Zinc as breathing in the vapour can give you the shakes and fever like symptoms. Copper is VERY HARD to melt, and once molten, re-solidifies almost instantly. I started practising with it and was mightily relived when I switched to casting in Silver.

Step 8: Pour into the mould. You should remove the mould from the kiln and place it next to your crucible workstation before attempting this. Pouring the metal in is surprisingly difficult and you really don’t want molten metal splashing or pouring onto anything else (you, clothes, wood, anything that will melt or burn). Once you’ve melted the metal, be sure to lift your welding visor otherwise the mould will be invisible (along with anything else that isn’t an electrical arc or glowing metal).

Step 9: Apply the plunger (carefully!). If you look carefully at the photo of my workbench you’ll see a broken stick of wood attached to the lid of a jam-jar. This is my plunger for steam casting. When you have poured the metal into the mould, you can push the plunger down on top to generate steam and force the metal into unoccupied parts of the mould. You should prime the plunger by stuffing it with newspaper and then wetting it (in your safety bucket of water). However, if you are casting in an open mould, there’s limited benefit to the above, as assuming you used a sensible amount of flux, and it’s hot enough, the metal will naturally fill the mould. In this case, I was overzealous and plunged the plunger down onto my filled mould whilst the Silver was still liquid, creating the following mess:


You can see the blobs of molten silver that were pushed out by the steam, and the blackened lump in the centre is what I pulled out of the mould itself, which was also looking rather worse for wear. It’s worth noting that metals, generally, can be purified and re-cast even when they look rather messy. The impurities will either burn off or sink to the bottom of the crucible.


The mould, after use. This type of mould is only intended for a single use. However since I was in a hurry (never cast in a hurry!), I decided to re-use it and modify my original design somewhat. I placed the lumps of silver into the mould and created an arc between the two electrodes in close proximity to the mould (1-2mm max), in order to re-melt the silver into the mould. This worked very well, though changed the nature of the end product.

Step 10: Quench and finish. After re-melting, I was careful to wait for the casting to cool before dropping the whole mould in my handy nearby bucket of water. After a few seconds bubbling, I retrieved the cast using a pair of pliers and tidied it up using a grinding wheel and a wire brush polishing wheel. Since the mould had been abused during the two pours of the casting process, there were some fragments of gypsum (plaster) embedded in the surface of the final cast. These soon came out under the polishing wheel whilst I was improving the overall shape and look of the piece. 20170722_195339

Here is the front of the finished pendant, with a very lunar surface look to it. There’s a 2.4 mm hole drilled into the top for the silver chain, at a slight angle to help it sit ‘moon side up’ when worn as a necklace. I didn’t cast/make the chain, as that’s far too much like hard work, instead buying it from a local jeweller.


I polished the back side of the pendant to a much smoother finish, with the idea that it would be more comfortable to wear. During the polishing process it got so hot that two tool marks imprinted into the Silver, you can see them towards the bottom. I decided to leave them as they look rather like footprints to me!

Casting is a lot of fun, however it can be extremely hazardous so should only be done with extreme care. It took me about 3 months of occasional evening and weekend practice before I was able to make my first ‘proper’ cast, and I’m still a very, very long way from even a student level of proficiency. But it kind of works, and I’m very happy with the end result. I’m also not going to give up my day job!

P.S. I must give credit to The King of Random for his excellent Arc Furnace video which was my inspiration for using the arc welder to melt metal!

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I don’t often write to my head of state…


Way back in February, when Theresa May was over in Washington D.C. and even before she was having her hand held by a certain Donald Trump, she invited him to tea at Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get round to sending this letter when I first wrote it, but since the visit is still on the table, and the Queen is still on the throne, I thought I’d dig it out and send it. Here it is for your enjoyment, please feel free to copy/paste and send your own copies!

Her Majesty The Queen

Buckingham Palace

London SW1A 1AA United Kingdom,

30th May 2017

Dear Madam,

Regarding: The Invitation of Donald Trump on a State Visit to the United Kingdom

As a concerned citizen and subject I feel it is my duty to express my extreme unease at the invitation of United States President Donald Trump to the United Kingdom on a state visit. Based upon his previous public statements and actions since taking office, I do not consider that he would be a fit and appropriate guest of our nation. In my opinion his actions demonstrate that he is clearly an odious individual, of highly questionable character, who fails to demonstrate the necessary respect for human rights and the rule of law which we are fortunate to enjoy in this country.

Indeed, his public statements have on several occasions been extremely close to incitement to violence, encouraged the detention without trial of his political opponents and have frequently been extremely disrespectful to women, as well as religious and ethnic minorities. His refusal to unreservedly condemn torture is just one recent example of his disrespect for international law and treaties which have formed the bedrock of our peace and stability since the Second World War.

I appreciate that in our current situation as a nation we are in need of powerful friends abroad, both to ensure the security of our nation through agreements such as NATO, and with our forthcoming exit from the European Union creating the requirement for new trade deals to safeguard our economic prosperity. However, welcoming such an individual risks degrading the status of our nation, which is perhaps too high a price to pay.

I am in no doubt that you would be a most gracious and accommodating host, to guests of all nationalities and political persuasions as you have been in the past. Furthermore, I am not aware of any precedent where state visit invitations as issued by the government have been rescinded, yet given the growing turmoil in the United States after only a short period of his Presidency, I am convinced that in this case a new precedent of revocation would be fully justified and entirely appropriate. It is clearly not in our national interest to be associated with such a divisive individual, who seeks to build walls rather than bridges with his neighbours.

I urge you as the head of state to take all actions within your power as our sovereign to lobby, the elected representatives of your Government, whoever they may be after June 6th, to ensure that the invitation issued to the President of the United States for a state visit is rescinded at the earliest opportunity. We should not offer succour, less still an official welcome, to those who threaten or toy with the values of democracy, universal suffrage and tolerance which we hold to be the inalienable right of all those in our nation and beyond.

I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant,

James Devine

Note that the last, rather florid, part is protocol suggested by the The Royal Family’s website.

Being an Astronaut!

So I was having an in depth conversation about what it’s like to be a supposed grown-up with a friend the other day. And I hit on this allegory – which might be especially easy to relate to for almost grown-up people of a geeky persuasion. Here it is, complete with illustrations…


When I grow up…


Every child wants to be a grown-up, mostly so they can be an astronaut. Everyone wants to be an astronaut (or a fireman, or a superhero).

Almost grown-ups definitely want to be an astronaut, because they’re oh so nearly ready for all the challenges and responsibilities (and dangers) that life in space brings.

Real grown-ups however, fall into two categories – the ones who are really astronauts, and those who sit on the sidelines saying that one day they’ll be an astronaut, it’s just not quite the right time yet. They say that they just need something more before they can climb into the rocket, or that the world has let them down in not preparing them for life in space.

It’s not about space or time.


Of course I’m not talking about actually being a real astronaut and going to space in a rocket. I’m just using it as an example of how people 1) say something and actually mean something else and 2) orient their entire lives towards a particular goal and then stall because they’re afraid. It applies to studies, work, relationship, housing – indeed all major decisions that independent adults have to make for themselves.

I’m fairly convinced (after 33 orbits of our sun) that people in the non-astronaut category cannot be made into astronauts, even if they’re given all the space or time in the universe to do it. It might be possible to convert them by just strapping them into a rocket and pushing the big red button, but this post isn’t about coercion.

What does it mean to go to space?

not ready

I want to be a grown-up. I want to be independent, to have my own means of supporting myself (a space station, or a space suit, or a rocket, or a job). I want to make wonderful life choices about where I go and what I do and how I spend my time. I have some things on my mission check-list, which includes everything critical from finding enough food to eat to building myself a nice space house and hopefully filling it with a few little space people.

Careers and relationships are two examples of really long term space missions that grown-ups can go on. Careers are the easiest, because you are entirely responsible for where you drive your rocket ship. So many want to be astronauts just sit on the launch pad, waiting and hesitating about pressing the button because they’re afraid of making a mistake. There are a few who total the rocket by crashing it into mountains, the ocean, passing asteroids or even other planets, but provided you’re still breathing you can always buy/build/steal another rocket. Ejecting from your original career rocket after take-off is going to be complicated, difficult and expensive. But the worth of your career isn’t just measured in rocket-fuel, or gold, or money. After all, we spend the majority of our waking hours doing work, so it had better be at least bearable.


Relationships are a more complicated space mission, because you need to select a co-pilot. Once you’ve chosen and sealed yourself inside a relationship rocket, you’ll either be off to the stars together on the voyage of a lifetime, or one of you will jump (or be pushed) out of the airlock at some point. Interplanetary relationship rockets are generally not very spacious, so you’ll have to be good at living on top of each other,  especially putting up with everything that’s wrong with yourself and your co-pilot, in order to survive. Ejecting from the relationship rocket after take off is a hazardous process, it’s likely to be dangerous, emotionally challenging, destructive to property and friendships, expensive and time consuming. But if you’ve changed your mind about the destination or your co-pilot, it’s time to hold your breath, blow the escape hatch and jump into the void. Until you find a new co-pilot or a nice planet to live on.


I know many people who want to be in the relationship rocket (or at least say so), but don’t actually want to push the big red button because they’re afraid the rocket will explode on the launch pad, or that ejecting from the rocket at some indeterminate time in the future will be too hard, or some other reason I can’t fathom. That’s fine, but if you don’t really want to be an astronaut, saying you do isn’t cool.

I’m bored already. What’s the point of this post?


  1. You’ve (probably) always said you want to be an astronaut. 
  2. Be an astronaut.
  3. The risks are huge, the dangers of failure ever present, but it’s 100% worth it.

The art of being a successful astronaut (or even an astronaut at all) comes down to doing your best, accepting that you might not have packed your favourite flavour of dehydrated ice cream and ultimately, knowing that unless you’ve set yourself on fire in a horrendous space refuelling accident, you can probably recover from whatever mistakes you’ve made so long as you don’t give up.

4. The astronaut who gives up never makes it to their destination.


Galaxy Quest (a totally forgettable movie in many respects, despite an all star cast) has a great quotation – “Never give up, never surrender”.

5.  If you get lost, or break down, call a friend.


Just because the figure of a solitary astronaut fighting against the odds is a wonderful romantic vision of human endurance, doesn’t mean it’s a good model to follow. Probably you know some other astronauts that you can call on the radio who’ve had the same problem with their space ship you’re having right now. They are just what you need to help troubleshoot, and or put you up in the shelter of their space ship when yours is about to explode! Equally, if you’re blessed with sympathetic experts (parents) at mission control (home), make use of available resources.

6. It’s the ride of your life, don’t forget to enjoy it!


Because we only get one shot at being alive, so far. All the really cool people I know either are or want to be astronauts. I want to be an astronaut too. Day by day I’m learning how.

[The End]

My new Chromebook

Those of you who know me personally will probably have heard me talk about how much I like Chromebooks. I like Chromebooks. Not because ChromeOS is amazing, or I love Google (they’re both OK.). Mostly because they are cheap, reasonable quality computers and absolutely because you can run Linux on them. My latest purchase is an Acer Chromebook 14 and here I’m going to describe how I installed Linux on it.


Here’s the outside – very shiny aluminium, I’ve yet to run it under the laser engraver. I’m still trying to decide what I should put on the lid.

whatsapp-image-2016-12-15-at-21-46-27As you can see it has a really nice, vibrant 1080p screen. This was one of the things which sold me on it. I should add that I bought the 4/32GB version with the HD screen. The 2/16GB version comes with a standard definition LCD so it’s definitely worth the upgrade.


To install Linux, first flip over your new computer and void it’s warranty by opening the back. There are 10 screws to remove and the cover will snap off. Note that not all screws are the same length, so be sure to take note for re-assembly.


With the back removed you’ll be greeted by the insides of the machine. We need to remove the write protect screws which prevent modifications to the BIOS. img_20161215_224310

Here is one of the screws, located next to the Wi-Fi module. I unscrewed it, covered the electrical contacts on the motherboard with some plastic (PVC or masking tape would probably be the best thing if you have some), and put the screw back in. Since this laptop has apparently two write protect screws it’s probably better to replace them for mechanical stability into the future.


And here is the other screw, the same procedure applies. It is located at the top of the motherboard next to the battery. When both screws are masked or removed, you can replace the back of the laptop (it will snap into place as you put the screws in) and boot the machine.

First boot into developer mode  – press and hold the Esc and Refresh keys together, then press the Power button (while still holding the other two keys), then at the recovery screen —the screen with the yellow exclamation point—press Ctrl+D. Everything on the device will be wiped and you’ll have to re-login and re-configure the Wi-Fi. When this is done (it might take 2 reboots), head on over to MrChromebox for the bios modification script. I’ve used scripts from in the past, which have been excellent – however the Acer Chromebook 14 (model CB3-431) is a Braswell based device and MrChromebox seems to have the better BIOS payload at the moment. When the device restarts (after you’ve configured Wi-Fi again) don’t login, but instead press CTRL+ALT + => to get into the CROSH shell. The username is chronos and there’s no default password set.

From here you can download the BIOS update and the script to upload it. I flashed a new SeaBIOS (RW_Legacy) and also changed the boot flags to shorten the developer screen to 1 second. After this I rebooted the machine and inserted a USB key with the latest Gallium OS image onboard. Specifically, I downloaded the nightly build targeted for Braswell (so it’s a bit bleeding edge) and then flashed it using Win32DiskImager as per these awesome instructions. When powering your Chromebook back up, make sure that the USB key is inserted and press ESC at the SeaBIOS screen to open the boot menu, from which you should choose USB. From this point Gallium OS installation was straightforward, completed by following the prompts on screen. Unless you perform some additional steps, this process will completely erase ChromeOS from the device and give you a formatted 32Gb eMMC drive with Linux with any free space left for your use. Unfortunately the eMMC (like the RAM) is non-upgradeable.

It’s worth noting that my first choice OS for this device was Ubuntu, however due to some graphics card driver issues, it doesn’t boot (yet). This is why I’ll be running Gallium OS at least until Ubuntu catches up. So far I’m very happy with the new OS, however it’s worth noting that there are still some open issues with Gallium OS on the Acer Chromebook 14, most significantly the soundcard doesn’t work (and in some cases has been melting). I anticipate these things will get fixed in time, however there’s no guarantee. I plan to acquire some bluetooth headphones which will make the sound issue irrelevant for most use cases.


I’m really grateful to Mr.Chromebox and John Lewis, and a bunch of Linux gurus way smarter than me for doing all this work to get Linux running stably on these nice, cheap laptops. I hope this little not very in depth guide has cast some light on the process of installing Linux on your Chromebook and in particular the new all aluminium Acer Chromebook 14. If you do try to install Linux, it’s entirely at your own risk (and you’ll invalidate your warranty in the process) – however, I would say it’s definitely well worth doing if you succeed. Best of luck!



Dear Brexiteer. What we need you to do now.

Pretty much spot on!


So well done, first of all. You listened to the arguments, the same ones I listened to. You heard all the same information I did, you listened to the same debates that I did, but you voted to leave. And you won. I take that – it was a democratic process and sometimes in the democratic process you lose, as I have done.

The referendum has activated the political energies of people who haven’t been interested in politics for some time, so we are told, and many of them are like you, who voted to leave. So here’s the plea of the losing side to you now.

Firstly, don’t stop – don’t stop with your political passion and activism, because we need you now. We need you to be active, we need you to keep talking to the people who you trusted with this vote, and we need you to…

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The summer of Summer Student – 10 year Reunion!

10 years ago this summer, I arrived for the second time in Geneva for a 12 week internship at CERN. It was without doubt the best summer work placement I did in between leaving school and getting my first ‘proper’ job. Here is a picture of me, 10 years ago taken at about 5am half way up the Jura mountain headed for a sunrise breakfast after partying all night at a “kitchen party”.


The real purpose of this post, beyond reminiscences about a great time in my life and the lives of many others, is to encourage all of you who were part of it to come back to CERN this September for our 10 year reunion. Myself and some of the other former summies who are still lucky enough to be in residence are putting together some activities, which will include a tour of some surface buildings, possibly a guest lecture/screening of memorable photos and video messages from anyone unable to attend, a visit to the Kitchen in Building 38 (where the KP’s began) and probably dinner (possibly somewhere slightly more posh than R1) and drinks afterwards.

The date for your diary is Saturday 19th September, afternoon and evening.

Partners, spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends and children are all welcome. If you want to attend please drop me a line/facebook/email and I’ll send you the exact details!

There is also a facebook event you can join.

jimmy jura and the sunriseFor those who are unfamiliar with the CERN summer student programme – Official Page,  or haven’t had the pleasure of ever being a summer student the basics are (or at least used to be) as follows:

  • Up to 13 weeks paid internship at the CERN site in Geneva
  • Students selected from member states on the basis of an application form to be submitted in December of the preceding year.
  • Each student is selected for a technical project broadly aligned to his or her field of study, and supervised by a researcher or CERN staff member
  • All students are encouraged to attend a 6 week lecture course, covering all aspects of Physics from the very small (High Energy Particles) to the very big (Astrophysics), as well as many more practical details on how to construct and operate CERN scale particle accelerators, including signal acquisition and computing.
  • This experience is shared with approximately 150 other official summer students and countless more less official summer students who have managed to get to CERN for the summer.

Since I finished the programme I’ve done as much as I can to promote it to university students I’ve run into over the years. However the subject of this post is ALL THE FUN I had during my summer, outside of office hours!

Being in the heart of Europe with 150 other highly educated young people from all across Europe and beyond, all in receipt of a reasonable salary (which at the time was little short of a fortune by our meagre student standards), was a recipe for lots of fun. We had fun in many ways, and I have over 1000 photos in a shoebox at home which testify to the majority of our escapades. Here are some particular highlights, described mostly for the benefit for those who weren’t there or who have forgotten:

Fondue on the Roof

One lunchtime I was sitting in the restaurant with my friend Jakub and we decided to organise an exclusive rooftop fondue on top of one of the accessible roofs on the campus. We invited selected friends, and set off for the roof one evening that week with our sleeping bags, a fondue set, some warm clothes a guitar and a harmonica. And some red wine. It got rather cold at night, and I had a horrendous headache the next day. But it was all worth it.

Swimming in the lake at Annecy

Having lived mostly in London for the preceding 12 years of my life, I wasn’t too accustomed to the pleasures of life ‘in the wild’ such as dipping your toes in rivers and swimming in lakes. One sunny Saturday day I hitched a ride with some of my mostly Danish friends to the Aguile du Midi cable car, returning via Annecy. They had located a tree leaning over the lake with a rope swing. I’ll always remember how the cold the water was when I dropped in off the end of the rope and ended up fully submerged in the lake. Nobody told me to breath in before letting go, fortunately I didn’t swallow that much! Later that evening we had pizza on the lakeside and watched the spectacular annual Annecy Fireworks.

The front of the 2005 Summer Student T-shirt

Kitchen Parades

A hand-me-down term from unknown previous summer students, our weekly (Wednesdays, if I recall correctly…) party session, was referred to as a Kitchen Parade. Presumably this is some corruption of a Kitchen Party by a non-native english speaker, quite probably under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Like many informal aspects of the summer student programme, these parties were spontaneously (and excellently) organised by random groups of students, each taking their turn. Typically a party collection was taken in morning lectures by passing an empty cereal carton along the rows of seated students in the main auditorium, with the ‘fee’ for the party scrawled on one of the box flaps in Swiss Francs and an equivalent in Euros. Someone always managed to find a car and head to the supermarket for the prerequisite large quantities of alcohol. Some of the more memorable party themes were:

  • Bad taste party (come in fancy dress, so long as it’s in poor taste)
  • Toga party
  • Cross dressing party (boys dress as girls, girls dress as boys…)
  • Scotish/Irish party (whiskey drinking obligatory)
  • A delicious dinner cooked for us by the Italian students (more dignified than your typical party)
  • Lots of others I can’t remember.

Field trips

We all took advantage of the weekends to visit major cities nearby, from downtown Geneva, across into Italy, France and also more central Switzerland. I personally enjoyed a great trip to Zurich with quite a few awesome people I’m still in touch with, and a weekend in Milan and Turin that included seeing the breathtaking Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. Visits to the Last Supper are typically booked up years in advance by tour groups and organised parties, however a fellow summer student passed on some truly amazing and invaluable advice (I’m not sure if it still works today… if you are successful please let me know!). When we arrived at the church of Santa Maria we sat on the benches and waited for a tour bus to arrive, before pouncing on the tour leader to ask if they had any spare tickets – as for any given coach party there are always going to be a couple of people who cancel or are ill, so can’t use their tickets. On our second attempt we were successful and purchased three tickets for ourselves at face value from the guide!

The names of all the 2005 summer students. It would be great to hear from as many as possible to find out what you're all doing now!

The names of all the 2005 summer students. It would be great to hear from as many as possible to find out what you’re all doing now!


The real purpose of this post, beyond reminiscences about a great time in my life and the lives of many others, is to encourage all of you who were part of it to come back to CERN this September for our 10 year reunion. Myself and some of the other former summies who are still lucky enough to be in residence are putting together some activities, which will include a tour of some surface buildings, possibly a guest lecture/screening of memorable photos and video messages from anyone unable to attend, a visit to the Kitchen in Building 38 (where the KP’s began) and probably dinner (possibly somewhere slightly more posh than R1) and drinks afterwards.

The date for your diary is Saturday 19th September, afternoon and evening.

Partners, spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends and children are all welcome. If you want to attend please drop me a line/facebook/email and I’ll send you the exact details!

Raspberry Pi for Radiation Testing

Today I’ve been working on a radiation qualification test for three different types of bridge diodes.

Top view showing transformer, resistors, terminals and bridge diodes under test.

Top view showing transformer, resistors, terminals and bridge diodes under test.

The test set-up is as follows:

1) Pair of custom PCB’s located within the radiation test area

2) MCA24 cables (24 cores) linking the test area to a safe zone for the measurement electronics, 230V power is also available within the test zone.

3) Two identical custom PCB’s in the safe area, used for pin-out from the MCA24 cables with their Sub-D 25 (Think parallel port!) outputs

4) Two Arduino Mega 2560’s with 15 of their 16 analogue inputs used to measure the output voltages of the bridge diodes at regular intervals throughout the test, outputting blocks of data (100 samples per channel, taken consecutively) over serial at 9600 baud.

5) A Raspberry Pi B+ running command line raspbian, with modifications to auto-login and run a simple shell script at startup.

The Input voltage to the bridge diodes is approx 19V (from a 230/12 volt transformer with no load), and the RMS DC output is 4.8V. The 100Hz ‘lumpy’ DC is read into the Arduino ADC’s via a potential divider network with one 8.2K Ohm resistor on top and a 3.3K Ohm resistor on the bottom – the more observant will note that this will produce clipping at the peaks, however I hope with the lengths of cables (voltage drop and capacitance) between the test and safe zones, that this will not be an issue. In any case the aim of the exercise is just to verify that radiation doesn’t cause any unexpected catastrophic failures in the diodes, so a continuous saturation reading isn’t a particular issue as I’m looking for dramatic changes in behaviour.

Samples are sent over the serial port at 59 second intervals (there’s a microsecond offset too so that it will wrap over the 100Hz waveforms, rather than locking in at a particular offset.

And the bottom of the PCB with the 5 remaining bridge  diodes. These should have been on the top, but I made a mirroring error with the package in the design software.

And the bottom of the PCB with the 5 remaining bridge diodes. These should have been on the top, but I made a mirroring error with the package in the design software.

In setting up the hardware (Arduino and Pi) I wrote this sketch for the Arduino’s and this script for the Pi. Along the way I found this helpful resource on how to login automatically on the Pi and run a script by default on boot. The other thing to add is that the script needs to be set as executable with sudo chmod +x before it will run.

Photos of the setup to follow when I get it mounted.

Britain: For the Love of God, Please Stop David Cameron

A nice little reminder that austerity is negatively correlated with the economic growth required to pay debts.

Benjamin Studebaker

On May 7 (this Thursday), Britain has a general election. I care deeply about British politics–I did my BA over there and will return to do my PhD there this fall. But more importantly, David Cameron’s government has managed the country’s economy with stunning fecklessness, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do my part to point this out.

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The death of consumer electronics…

What do you buy for the man who has everything? An Omega watch of course… 

Last night I was talking two a couple of my engineer friends at a party (As an Engineer I obviously get invited to, and organise great parties), about the future of consumer electronics. My conclusion was that everyone already owns 90% of everything they’re going to need in terms of consumer electronics:

Landfill Mobiles

  • Smart Phone
  • Tablet
  • Laptop
  • Television/Projector
  • WiFi Router
  • DSLR camera/compact camera/mirror-less camera
  • Action camera
  • In-car GPS
  • Bluetooth Speaker

Beyond these ‘headline’ product categories, there’s no prospect for growth. I already own as many of all of the above items as I require. The consumer electronics industry is no longer about the fulfilment of needs (probably it never was) but more the search for novelty. What will we do when everyone already has 2 tablets, 3 bluetooth speakers and all the electronics retailers have closed?

There are two trends I can see:

1) Niches of niches – Every category is being sub-divided into 10 sub-categories, waterproof smartphone anybody? Mirror-less cameras are basically SLR’s for people with small arms, hands and fingers. Likewise having an MP3 player and a smart phone, and an action camera and a dash-cam. I want a product X in pink…etc.

2)Churn of churn – I’m writing this on a MacBook Pro I bought for a ridiculous sum of money in 2009. It still works perfectly, however I’ve seen plenty of other laptops go to landfill. Today you can easily pick up a reasonable spec plastic laptop for £300, when just 10 years ago you would pay £1000 for something with an equivalent historic market position. Take into account some inflation and today’s cheap laptop costs more like £100 in 2004 money. In summary, the cheaper the thing, the more often you need to replace it.

The main case study in these conclusions is Samsung. Which currently makes 1000’s of different smart phones (Android and Tizen), tablets, telephones, wearables, MP3 players, televisions, robot vacuum cleaners, laptops, computers etc. They have a massive share of the Android market, however these devices are the middle and low end of the smartphone and tablet sector, where margins are significantly less than those commanded by Apple who still hold the high ground. Consequently, Samsung need to shift a lot of product to make even close to the same headline figure as their fruity competitor, who make at least 40% margin (about $250 per phone) on the iPhone 6. Further, they’re heading into all kinds of strange and wonderful product categories (I’m mostly talking about their Gear range), for which consumer demand still seems unproven and recorded sales volumes so far are lamentably low, leaving to significantly reduced profits.

My conclusion for effect 1 is that companies are going to be pouring ever more R&D money (or perhaps consumers, via crowd-funding, as the recent Sony epaper Smart Watch campaign in Japan has shown), for ever smaller product niches. This inevitably means lower volumes. For effect 2, margins have fallen drastically on big ticket items, which is hurting tech companies. The only way to compensate for the lower margins is higher volume, which is achieved in part though the lower price, and in part through a shorter product life-cycle.

I bought a chromebook earlier this year and I love it. I’ve ripped out ChromeOS and it now runs Ubuntu very capably, however it’s never going to last as long as my 5-year-old MacBook. I like it because it’s light, portable and fast, consequently it’s also more likely to get destroyed when I take it out of the house. Where am I going with all of this?

There isn’t enough world for everyone to buy a new set of gadgets every 6 months. We’re going to run out of rare earth metals (that we can reach to mine economically anyway) and choke on toxic waste (if the CO2 doesn’t get to us first). The solution is higher quality, durable products with more in common to those produced in the 1950’s than the 2000’s. I want a laptop that lasts 10 years, a mobile phone that lasts at least 5 and so-on. Once you’ve hit the spot with decent hardware, selling novelty can be all about the software (which is more or less the Apple model these days).

The benefit of all of this? We’ll be a lot richer for it (in terms of natural resources), spend less time in shops buying junk and more time and money buying software which consumes only electricity – that could be generated renewably, or from Nuclear power. You might say that it’s elitist and undemocratic to push for higher quality items and the prices. How the worlds poorest 2Bn people are going to get the benefits of the internet if we raise the cost of a smartphone from $50 to $500 is a problem for another post. 

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Top Tips for Caves Ouvertes, Geneva

This year will be my 4th Caves Ouvertes in the canton of Geneva. Here are some tips to help newbies get the most out of what is arguably the best day of the year to be in Geneva.

The vinyards of Satigny

For the complete beginner, Caves Ouvertes is the annual opening of (almost) all wineries in the Geneva canton of Switzerland. This gives you the chance to try an enormous variety of local wines for free. Most places open between 9-10am and close around 5pm. My top tips for getting the most out of your day are:

  1. Glass (for drinking) – The small size wine glass, normally branded with the logo of Caves Ouvertes for the year will set you back about 5 CHF. I have almost enough of them to use at dinner parties. Provided you can get it home in one piece it’s a great souvenir.
  2. Transportation (for yourself) – Most of the caves (at least in the Satigny/Dardagny region) aren’t far apart. You can get out to the vineyards from Geneva on the local train from Cornavin. When you’ve arrived you can walk between a few of the caves, or alternatively TPG runs a fairly comprehensive shuttle bus service, which might even be free. However since it’s an immensely popular event the shuttle busses often get full to capacity (especially with people heading in to Dardagny at the end of the day), so you might have to wait a very long time. Like many veterans of caves ouvertes, my prefered means of transport is cycling. Obviously you should take care not to cycle dangerously if under the influence of a large quantity of wine.
  3. Transportation (for your purchases) – I normally take a large rucksack with me to accommodate my purchases throughout the day. If you’re a real big spender and happen to live in Switzerland most places will deliver a case or more to your door for free after the event. If you’re only interested in buying the odd bottle you will have to be prepared to carry it around. Also make sure that your chosen luggage has a safe compartment where you can store your glass for those rare moment when you’re not drinking out of it.
  4. Things to bring – In addition to a large rucksack to store your wine, I can recommend bringing a couple of bottles of water (to stave off dehydration, especially if you’re cycling), some sun cream (on the off-chance it isn’t raining), a waterproof (on the off-chance it isn’t sunny) and a fleece for the dual purpose of insulating the bottles against each other and insulating you if it gets cold in the evening. The fleece will also come in handy for drying off your glass in between caves.
  5. What to buy? I’m a big fan of using Caves Ouvertes to stock up on local produce. I’ve had difficulty locating the Cave de Geneve Bacarat Grand Cru in the supermarket (NB this is the top of the range Bacarat, I definitely recommend it), only the regular stuff seems to be on the shelf in the Coop. Chasselas is the entry-level white wine for the region, which can be extremely refreshing when served chilled on a hot summer afternoon. A few caves (such Domaine de la Clé de Sol in Chouilly) specialise in rare varieties of grapes that are no longer mainstream in neighbouring France following the great wine blight of the 19th century. There are also some interesting sweet white wines to be tasted, including the Schreube which is a very distinct sweet white. In the red wine selection most caves offer Gamay as the entry-level bottle, which I find to be slightly watery for my tastes. My recommendation for red wine is the Gamaret, which has a much stronger taste, higher tannin content and goes very well  indeed with beef. Another recommendation if you’re planning to buy wine is to bring cash (Swiss Francs of course), since paying buy card can take a while when the caves are busy. Another note for buying wine is that normally you’ll have to go to the desk to pay, where they will then give you a receipt which you take to the depot (normally next door or across the courtyard) to get your wine.
  6. Where to go? I normally start off from around CERN and head towards Dardagny, via Chouilly, Peissy and Satigny. One day I’d like to go to the other side of the lake, I’ve heard rumours that it’s also very good, especially if you have a bike since the caves are farther apart. Dardagny becomes something of a party town with live music and food stands in the main street. Domaine des trois etoiles in Satigny normally has a good live band as well as great views over the city from the vineyards. Here is a link to an excellent google map with the positions of all the caves in the Geneva region.
  7. What to eat? A hard day of wine tasting calls for some serious nourishment. Most places will provide something for you to eat as you taste, ranging from literally a few crumbs of bread in some places to a gourmet selection of cheese and charcuterie in others. Prices for food also vary from free all the way to expensive. A lot of caves also have food stalls with home-made fayre, or if you’re in one of the larger towns there will probably be plenty of food market stalls to choose from.
  8. And finally, if you’re had a superb day wine tasting don’t forget to drink plenty of water before going to bed!

A gateway to the chateau in Chouilly

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