Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD by Martin Lukačišin

The best thing about The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD is that it’s very short. I read it while travelling to the airport and waiting at the security check. It reads very well and it’s packed with ideas. Each idea is presented using a parable which makes them very easy to remember.

The last chapter likens the life of a PhD student to Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, which is where the name of the book comes from. I found this analogy the best and most memorable.

During my time in academia, I wanted to write similar thoughts in a blog post (or two) but I always deleted what I wrote, since I didn’t believe that academia could be fixed and thus my drafts were pure rants. The author is slightly more optimistic and tries to provide solutions, though he still admits that the book is very negative about academia.

I think academia will never get fixed, since it’s stuck in a bad equilibrium, just like schools, medicine, politics or airport security checks. We think academia is about science, schools are about education, medicine is about health, politics about improving lives of ordinary people and airport checks are about security. However, all of them are primarily about something else and the stated purpose is at best a secondary side-effect.

The real issue with academia—in my opinion—is that it’s primary about academics gaining prestige and status among other academics. Science ends up being a secondary side-effect of this process. The author hints at it in the very last paragraph of the book but unfortunately doesn’t expand on the idea. For this reason, I recommend complementing The Old Man, the Sea and the PhD with Elephant in The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. You’ll have a better understanding why the life of a PhD student is as miserable as Martin Lukačišin describes it.

Note: this review has also been published on Amazon.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Loptoši™ 2017: Slovakia off the beaten path

The theme of Loptoši™ 2017 was discovering Slovakia off the beaten path, with a focus on the east and mid-south.

The trip started with a streak of bad luck. A few hours before the trip we’ve discovered that our car rental has been canceled. And half of our crew (Palo and Roman) suffered from stomach flu in the first days of the trip.

In the end it was a great trip, full of interesting places and experiences. Instead of covering it chronologically, let me describe the 3 most memorable places.

Stužica, primeval forest

Stužica is a primeval forest that hasn’t been touched for 100 years by humans. I’ve been to forests that looked like they have been vacuumed, but I prefer messy unmanaged forest with trees left to decompose. We’ve experienced Stužica during wet and foggy weather, which created just the right atmosphere. Stužica thus became the top experience of the trip for me.

Trees left to decompose

Hiking in the fog

Železník, former mining town

Železník lies deep in the forest high up on a mountain. The mountain used to be one of the largest sources of iron in the area. It was a prosperous lively small village/town, but now there’s very few people left. If you speak Slovak, you can watch a documentary about Železník.

When we arrived there, the Sun was about to set and Ivan was reading out loud an article about Železník from Čierne Diery. His captivating voice, the abandoned structures around us and the great view gave me goose bumps.

Old phone booth and post office

Sunset seen from Železník

Inside blast furnace near Železník

Čierny Váh, the biggest battery in the country

The Čierny Váh pumped-storage plant is a few tonnes of concrete in nature. A top of a hill has been replaced by a water reservoir.

View from the air. Photo by

People say that nature should be preserved, but this structure has enormous benefits. During the night, it takes the overflow electric power from power plants that are slow to turn off, like nuclear power plants, and uses it to pump water 400 meters higher. During the day, the water flows back down, generating energy. It’s basically a giant battery and the most powerful power plant in the country.

We could have preserved this particular piece of nature and instead built a plant that’s easier to turn off and start, like a coal plant, but the environmental consequences would have been much higher. Čierny Váh is still the least environmentally harmful solution.


A selection of my photos is on Flickr and an album merged from multiple people is on Google Photos.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Travelling by teleport to Tuscany

There exists a mode of transport that is as good as teleport: first you go to the teleport station and then you wake up at your destination. Sometimes you can even take your car with you. It’s called night train (overnight ferries also qualify).

In the last two years I've used night trains a lot, mostly because I find them more convenient and less stressful than flying. And they also emit fewer harmful gases.

Some night trains transport cars, which allows you to make a one-way road trip like this one:

Tuscany 2017

Me and Veronika had a great time in Tuscany, ate very tasty food, rested on the beach and loaded on vitamin D before the winter. Some places were crowded but you can avoid that if you go early in the morning.

I won't bore you with all the details, but feel free to look at the (few) photos below or read my captions in the complete photo album on Google Photos (to see the captions, press “i” on your keyboard). A smaller selection of my photos is also on Flickr.


Car is loaded on the train, ready for a 1000-kilometer journey.

After sunset on our balcony in Castagneto Carducci

In Piombino. The highest mountain is Monte Capanne on Elba. The low mountains on the horizon is Corsica.

First row on the beach


San Gimignano full of tourists

Happy to be in Florence

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore with a shade from The Baptistery of St. John.

Ponte Vecchio at night 

Inside a fancy perfume store (Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella)

Come join me in my bathtub

Florence gives you wings

We drove through a supercell storm and then saw another one in the distance. The top of the anvil and flanking line are clearly visible.

Shoes of Ljubljana

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Music Recommendations #3

The first two editions of Music Recommendations were sent to my friends via e-mail, so you won’t find them on this blog.

I sent my last recommendations in 2013, so there’s a lot of music that I’ve discovered since then. Some of it is older than 2013.

I’ve only listed albums that I think are worth listening to, so all my ratings are at least 7/10. You can listen to all albums in one Spotify playlist.

Two Fingers – Six Rhythms 10/10 tags: to listen, grime, electronic, idm, dubstep, bass

I often hear people say, “There hasn’t been anything new in the music scene since the 80’s/90’s.” To which I typically reply, “Have you listened to Amon Tobin?” This work under Two Fingers is no exception. Make sure you have bass on full blast while listening to this.

Bonus: listen to Two Fingers DJ set from 2013 on Soundcloud or Mixcloud.

Metronomy – Nights Out 9/10 tags: electronic, poptron, electro, british

When my brother first listened to this, he asked, “What are these guys smoking?” I said I had no idea, but it’s great music. Very crazy and full of contradictory rhythms.

The Kills – Blood Pressures
 9/10 tags: indie rock, garage rock, alternative

After the end of The White Stripes, this is my go-to rock band. They have great vocals and the style of the songs varies a lot.

Black Sun Empire – From the Shadows 9/10 tags: drum and bass, neurofunk, darkstep, dubstep

I thought drum’n’bass was dead but then I found Black Sun Empire. This album is dark, which makes it hard to listen to at times. It usually lifts my mood, though.

Jungle – Jungle 9/10 tags: electronic, psychedelic, jungle, techno, soul, dancehall

The slowest album on the list. Great for evening chill-out.

Mujuice – Mistakes and Regrets 9/10 tags: electronic, idm, minimal, russian, glitch, experimental

Mujuice blew my mind years ago at Wilsonic music festival and continues to do so to this day.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual 8/10 tags: electronic, experimental, dark ambient

Such a dark and strange album. I keep changing my mind about it. 4 years later I still haven’t been able to fully digest it. Getting used to it takes a lot of time.

Bonobo – North Borders 8/10 tags: downtempo, electronic, chillout, trip-hop

Nothing can ever beat Bonobo’s album Days to Come, but he still keeps his standard.

Caribou – Our Love 8/10 tags: electronic, experimental, indie, poptron

After Swim, which is an album out of this world, Our Love was a disappointment, but still worth listening to. I think I like Caribou more when they play faster than this.

Skalpel – Transit 8/10 tags: jazz, nu-jazz, ninja tune, electronic

This album makes for a great background music. Worse than the old ones, but they also kind of keep their standard.

Clark – Totems Flare 8/10 tags: idm, electronic, warp

I originally thought Clark would be very boring, but this album proved me wrong.

FM Belfast – How to Make Friends 7/10 tags: poptron, electronic, synthpop, indie

This is dance music that even Richard Štefanec is willing to listen to. Unfortunately, the few very good songs are accompanied by many mediocre ones.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hölloch – Weekend in a Cave

Hölloch is currently the 10th longest cave in the world (it used to be the first). Spending a weekend there was a great experience that I can only recommend. It was also one of the toughest trips I've ever done.


After a short briefing, we left the outer world and entered the underground. My mind wondered about a lot of things:
  • How will we cope with the darkness? Answer from the future: just fine.
  • How will we cope with narrow spaces? Answer from the future: mostly fine.
  • Will we be afraid of getting trapped between rocks? Answer from the future: yes, a few times.
  • Will it be physically demanding? Answer from the future: you bet!
The first 2 hours to the bivouac were easy hiking with occasional ladders and ropes. The corridors were wide and spacious.

First part was exactly like mountain hiking.

Under a the biggest waterfall we've seen in the cave.

We dropped our stuff at the bivouac and went to explore the cave. The corridors were getting smaller and smaller. Up to the bivouac, we were mostly standing upright, but now we appreciated every moment when we could stand up. We crouched, we crawled and everything started to hurt. I've also crashed many times into pointy rocks in the walls.

I didn't have to breathe out to pass through but Dano did.

We saw some of the best cave formations of Hölloch, but it was nothing compared to what you can see in the Slovak public caves.

These get destroyed during floods.

At about 8 PM, our guide asked us if we wanted to continue and I was the only one in the group who said no. Dano later told me that I just said what everyone else was thinking. The guide said that usually only one group per year goes further than us, so we still felt good about our stamina.

In total, we climbed about 1000 altitude meters in 10 hours. When Jakub told me about the trip, I imagined a light cave hiking with an occasional ladder or a rope, but this was some tough shit.

We went to bed but I couldn't fall asleep, because it was too hot. The cave has a stable temperature of 6 degrees Celsius, but it felt too hot in my sleeping bag.

Bivouac with sleeping space, kitchen and eating tables.


We went for a fairly easy walk in the morning, checking out more cave formations.

I was impressed with all the infrastructure they have inside the cave. For example, there is a drinking water system that uses just gravity. Or you can send an SMS from the cave using very very long antennas transmitting long waves that pass through hundreds of meters of rock.

It was time for the local Rutschbahn (slide in German), where you slide on one shoe through a steep corridor. The record for it is around one minute, but we went much slower than that. We still hurt ourselves, though.

Before we exited the cave, we also made a small detour and took a boat over a small lake inside the cave. During rain, the water in the lake can rise up quickly and you can't come back the same way.

At this point I was really tired and really looking forward to the exit. Vladimír was not and he needed to crawl through every little passage that fits a person.

Typical Vladimír.

The end

At home I discovered that I had a lot of bruises on my body and two bleeding wounds on my back. Every one of my muscles hurt, but it was definitely worth it. Caving is hard but beautiful.

Photos album merged from multiple cameras is on Google Photos.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Loptoši™ 2016: Georgia

After a year hiatus, my favorite event Loptoši™ was back with its 6th edition. This time it was only me and my brother Palo in late September.


Approximate itinerary on Furkot:
Note: You should try Furkot when planning your next trip. It’s the best thing since sliced bread GPS navigation.


We planned to hike from Mestia to Mazeri via Guli pass and then go see the Shdugra waterfall on the second day.

The beginning was very steep, but we were very soon rewarded with great views of Caucasus. These were some of the highest peaks I’ve ever seen.

Tetnuldi (4858 m) & Gistola (4860 m)
We continued together with a big Czech group also going to Mazeri. The ground was covered with snow from about 2600 meters altitude.

The descent was very slippery and we had trouble keeping balance with huge backpacks, so we both fell multiple times. After finding a great spot for a tent, we cooked dinner and just stayed in the tent.

I got a text in Georgian on my Georgian SIM and thought it must have been something very important. I sent it to my friend Mike who said that they fixed the sewage system in Zugdidi. That was very useful to know, given that we were camping 100 kilometers from there!


I slept like a baby for about 12 hours. Palo wasn’t so lucky and got a bad night in an old sleeping bag. It was freezing outside and we had plenty of frost inside the tent.

Frost inside the tent

Great morning view of Svaneti Range
We descended to Mazeri, where we left half of our gear and then hiked to Shdugra waterfall.

Shdugra waterfall

Mazeri as seen from Shdugra waterfall


We drove from the mountains to the coast of the Black Sea. It was raining and cold, so there was not much to do. We went to sauna and checked out the local fortress.

Kvariati must be very pleasant when it's warm and sunny


Google Maps shows two alternatives for the shortest route between Batumi and Akhaltsikhe: 160 km long and 320 km long, both taking about the same time. Feeling adventurous, I chose the shorter alternative through the mountains.

Goats occupying the road

Choose your side

The road was getting worse and worse until it was only mud and no asphalt
The last 60 km took us more than 3 hours and it was very tiring to drive. Too bad it was raining, driving on this bad road could have been compensated with great views of the nearby mountains and valleys. When the bad road ended and we left the mountains, the country suddenly became very dry.

The monastery in Vardzia was spectacular, a labyrinth inside a cliff.

Five monks still live in this mountain

We then drove to Akhaltsikhe. Thanks to an EU grant, the Rabati Castle in Akhaltsikhe was recently reconstructed. Unfortunately, they used concrete almost exclusively, trying to make it look like old stone. It looks nice from afar but fake from very close.

Brothers in Rabati Castle


In the morning, we went for a short hike in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. After one hour, the rain stopped and we actually saw a bit of the mountains.

We also visited the Stalin Museum in Gori. Unfortunately, the museum didn’t mention Holodomor in Ukraine or Russian gulags. On our way to Telavi, we passed through Gombori pass during sunset.


We visited the wine museum at Twins Old Cellar. Georgians have a wine-making method that is completely different from the one we use at home (and anywhere else in Europe for that matter). As a result of a different technology, white wine tastes similar to red.

Wine is made in large vessels called kvevri. A person cleans them from the inside.

We arrived to Tbilisi and chilled in the botanical garden for a few hours. In the evening we met up with Achi, cousin of my friend Mike from Stockholm.

Tbilisi during the day

Tbilisi at night

It was great to have someone local show us around. When we asked Achi how to send postcards, we learned that it is very complicated, since the concept of post is fairly new to Georgia. They developed other means of delivering important information, like small ATM-like machines on every corner.

The end

Georgia has a lot to offer: apart from high mountains, beaches and historic sites mentioned in the post, we had a lot of great and cheap food. I will definitely come back.

A selection of my photos is on Flickr. An album merged from our cameras is on Google Photos (if you click on “(i)” in the upper right corner of a photo view, you get to see my captions).

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Alaska: Scandinavia on really strong steroids

I always liked traveling to the north: Norway, Sweden and Estonia are my favorite destinations. Then I went to Alaska and realized it’s very similar to those countries.

Alaska is Scandinavia on steroids. Really strong steroids.


Approximate itinerary on Furkot:

Note: You should try Furkot when planning your next trip. It’s the best thing since sliced bread GPS navigation.


We’ve left Anchorage in the afternoon and hiked to Lazy Mountain as a warm-up for the rest of the week. It was July 4 and a few hours ago the local military veterans brought a brand new American flag to the top. We had no option but to decorate it with a small Canadian flag.

Go Canada!
We continued driving east, catching a spectacular view at Eureka Roadhouse.

Nelchina Glacier with unnamed peaks and (probably) Audubon Mountain in the back on the left.
It's a pretty amazing view if you think about it.
Other than that it was mostly hours of driving through endless Alaskan tundra.

Endless tundra with Mount Drum at the end.


Still jet-lagged, I woke up at 5 AM unable to sleep. I saw Mount Drum, a 3660-meter high stratovolcano.

Mount Drum from Glennallen at 5:30 AM.
We drove to Tangle River Inn, where we picked up canoes to paddle on Tangle Lakes. The weather switched from clear blue sky to showers a couple of times.

We found a great camping spot at Lower Tangle Lake.

Dinner spot at least 50 meters from tents to distract bears from us.


We woke up to a beautiful morning at Lower Tangle Lake, so we swam and took some photos. After all, a photo shoot was the real reason why we traveled to Alaska.

Good morning Tangle lakes!

Enough with fun, let's now paddle upstream back to the inn. Water was too shallow and fast in the rapids, so we had to pull the boats. Petrž volunteered to get his shoes wet and pulled our boat most of the time. I tried pulling barefoot, but that was too slow and painful.

Petrž and Roman puling and pushing canoes.
After returning the canoes, we drove along the very scenic Denali Highway. At Alpine Creek Lodge we had a great time listening to stories about bears. The first Alaskan bear attack of 2016 happened here. The hunter lost half of his face, returned to the lodge and said “so this is probably the end of my modeling career”. What a spirit at the age of 77!

Watching rain from Alpine Creek Lodge.
After arriving at Gracious House Lodge and packing for Denali, me and Roman went for a car drive at 11:30 PM to take some photos before sunset. The sky was stunning.

Alaska Range before sunset.


We arrived at Denali Wilderness Access Center and took the mandatory training before entering Denali National Park. Then we took a 5-hour bus ride to Wonder Lake Campground and we saw about 5 bears, 20 caribou and a few more animals from the bus. Not bad!

Brown bear




The doors of the bus closed and we were finally on our own in the wilderness. There was a bear just one mile before the bus dropped us off, walking in our direction. My inner voice talked to me for the first time in years: “Now you'll pass through a small valley with lots of bushes, meaning no visibility whatsoever. If you meet a bear, you’ll see him/her just 3 meters in front of you. Wait, I have an idea! Do you remember the trainings with your orienteering club in Stockholm? You were a lousy long distance runner but you were a good enough sprinter. THIS IS FINE. Just run faster than one of the three people that are with you. YOU CAN BREATHE NOW. IT’S FINE.” My inner voice has questionable moral values, so we usually don’t talk. It managed to calm me down, though.

The valley with bushes and small trees looks dangerous. At least we have a bear spray.
At Wilderness Access Center we got a permit to sleep in Denali Unit 6, which has an area of about 200 km2 or about the area of one Slovak national park. It consists of a huge valley, couple small glacier valleys and high peaks of various colors.

Lunch at Teklanika River.

Different colors of Cathedral Mountain.

Side valley with a glacier.
After a bit of walking, we caught a wild caribou by its antlers, while it was eating grass.

At one point Martin’s shoes broke, so I lent him my spare pair. 2 hours later, my shoe broke too, so I took back my spare shoes and he repaired one of his shoes. The shoe problems slowed us down, so the whole day we only hiked on the Teklanika River bed. Even though it was a very long day with large backpacks, I set my alarm to 5 AM, hoping for a steep early morning hike.


We went to bed before 10 PM and I woke up at 4 AM unable to sleep. I shook Petrž, asking him if he wants to go on a hike. Fortunately, he’s one of the few people who says yes to such proposals at 4 AM, so off we went. The views before and after sunrise were stunning.

Before sunrise

After sunrise
After coming back from the hike, we packed our camp and hiked back along Teklanika. We crossed Teklanika for one last time before it became impassable 2 kilometers downstream where another river flows in. The stream was already very strong here, so we’ve employed a strategy recommended by rangers: make a human train by holding the backpack of a person in front of you.

Human train
No wonder Christopher McCandless (of Into the Wild fame) decided not to cross the same river 30 kilometers downstream and this contributed greatly to his death.

At one point we needed to pass through a forest without trails, so I took a bearing on my compass and we followed it. After some time we realized we ended up at a wrong place. The map claimed Magnetic North Pole is 25 degrees to the east of geographic north but perhaps I added 25 instead of subtracting 25, which would lead to a 50-degree error. Also, the map was issued in 1954 and the Magnetic North Pole shifted by good 30 degrees since then. My error or not, we corrected our direction and continued walking. After another hour of walking, we were excited when we saw the road and the bus. My legs had at least 147 scratches from vegetation, which is a typical result of a tough orienteering race and not of a hiking trip.

Back at Denali Visitor Center, me and Martin said goodbye to our shoes after 10 years of dedicated service. We drove south and saw the peak of Denali twice, having a better view at Denali Viewpoint South. Denali used to be called Mount McKinley for a century but recently changed its name back to the old one used by locals for centuries. Inspired by those two names, we combined both into one: McDenaley.

McDenaley, 6190 meters
McDenaley is 6190 meters high, which makes it the highest mountain of Northern America. It’s also one of the most prominent peaks in the world, being about 2 kilometers higher than anything else nearby. Despite its shape, it’s not a volcano but a gigantic stone pushed up from the ground.


This was a lazy day for us. In the afternoon we went for a very short hike from Whittier to Portage Glacier and Lake. An awesome place for a swim!

Portage Glacier and Lake

Just a normal summer activity: hanging out with friends on a sunny day by the lake.
Back at the beach, the people watching were in awe and a few women were blushing. Somehow I didn’t feel like we achieved much: it was the warmest water we encountered in Alaska (10–11 degrees Celsius), the air was warm too and the ice not as bad as you would expect. Just the other day I was crossing an ice-cold glacier river at 4 AM and yelling at the whole valley, because I experienced double pain: from the ice-cold water and sharp stones cutting into my bare feet. That was more impressive but it doesn't look like that to bystanders.

Enough with the photos, we have to hurry to make it through Anderson Tunnel in time, so that Petrž can catch his flight. After a few steps, Roman discovered that the ice cut his foot open, so we quickly fix it and continue. I’ve also seen blood dripping from Petrž’s foot, but he didn’t even put a band-aid on it.


Monday morning, time for climbing. The instructions in the Mountain Project guide missed an extra trail fork, so we ended up at a different crag that was much harder. The descriptions of Lower and Upper Pivot Point crags are very similar too, both having a large crack on the left side. On a positive note, Roman led his first 5.10a (thinking it was a 5.8). Me and Martin tried climbing it too, but it was beyond our skills.

Climbing at Lower Pivot Point. Roman is unknowingly leading a 5.10a.
Disappointed by the tough Alaskan climbing ratings, we decided to go salmon and bear watching to Cooper Landing instead. We didn’t see bears, but we saw some salmon jumping upstream. Impressive creatures!

Salmon jumping Russian River Falls.
It was time for all three of us to fly home, so this magnificent trip came to its end.

Lucky Coincidences

People often complain about bad luck, but we had too much luck this time. It started already in Princeton.
  • Friday before the wedding, I wanted to visit Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, but it’s open for visitors only twice a month. Bummer! Then I went to check if it happened to be open on that day and sure it was!
  • A huge storm started while walking through the Princeton University campus. Luckily, we were under the Blair Arch right when the storm started, so we didn’t catch a single drop.
    Under Blair Arch
  • The 4 of us brought 5 pairs of hiking shoes in total to Denali National Park. During the second day we got down to 7 good shoes when Martin managed to repair one, so we were back to 8 shoes. Fortunately, my right shoe and his left shoe were still working, so he combined the two into a pair. Also, luckily we have similar shoe sizes.

    Left shoe repaired, right shoe 5 kilometers before breaking.
  • It rained only once while we were hiking in Denali. It started 15 minutes after we finished pitching tents, so we took a half-hour nap in the tents and continued hiking once the storm was over.
  • On both our wilderness trips, we haven’t met a single person.
  • We didn’t die.

Alaskan Philosophy

Petrž and Roman got all philosophical on social media, claiming that Alaskan wilderness changed them substantially. There are no people, no trails, no bridges over the rivers, no phone signal. You can only rely on your friends and things you brought with you. I haven’t been as touched as them, probably because I’ve experienced something similar but 40 degrees Celsius colder and with no visibility three years ago in Northern Sweden.

A few days after the trip I’ve made a regular testosterone test and got 40% higher value than last year’s average. Perhaps Alaska turns you into a man (it probably doesn’t). Seriously though, Alaska changed me at least a bit, because we met animals on every step and had to act accordingly. It wasn’t just bears but also moose, caribou, beavers, eagles, salmon, mosquitoes, etc. On a recent trip to Swiss Alps, we didn’t meet many animals, so the mountains felt empty and half dead.


A selection of my photos is on Flickr. An album merged from many cameras is on Google Photos, including photos from Princeton (if you click on “(i)” in the upper right corner, you get to see my captions).

P.S. This was the longest trip I took for non-business reasons, so I bumped my regular donation to CarbonFund. If you aren’t offsetting your carbon use, you should consider it. Also, let me know if you know a better alternative to CarbonFund.
P.S2. Also read Petrž's post if you understand Slovak.