Wednesday, January 27, 2021

entering plague year 2

The novel coronavirus started spreading in the UK around this time last year, so we're now entering the second year. And we've passed 100,000 deaths even by the most conservative metrics used by the government. And with the new vaccines and the new variants, the second year will be a completely different game, although I'm not confident the UK government will handle it much better than the first one.

Oh and my new feature on the development of the vaccines that are now being used is out as a preprint, free access here, the regular publication date will be Monday Feb 8th. I'll do a proper blog post for it then.

Might be a good time to round up the Covid-related contributions from the first year:


Blog entries

((image to follow, upload not working))

I'm a great fan of the Corona cover art of Der Spiegel, this is issue 03 of 2021.

Monday, January 25, 2021

marine marvels

It has almost become a January tradition (since Fantastic species and where to find them in 2017) that I start the year writing a light-hearted feature on the wonders of the natural world. So this years it's all about sponges:

Magical mysteries of marine sponges

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 2, 25 January 2021, Pages R51-R54

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Many sponges have hidden mineral skeletons, but glass sponges have their glass structures on display, like this Venus’ flower basket (Euplectella aspergillum) found in deep waters of the Pacific. (Photo: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2012 Expedition (CC BY 2.0).)

PS Last year's "fantastic" feature was about evolutionary lineages losing or gaining legs when they change their way of locomotion:

Step changes in evolution

It is now in the open archives.

Where you'll also find the first feature of last year, about life after the anthropocene.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

gemstone town

#lostcities episode 8: Idar-Oberstein

Fun fact: All four of my grandparents lived at Idar-Oberstein for some time, although never more than three of them simultaneously. By the time I was born, however, two had died and the other two moved to the countryside, 30 km away from the town. Which is why it pops up in my list of cities that we lost touch with.

Much like Wuppertal, but on a ten-fold smaller scale, Idar-Oberstein is the result of a merger of two towns squeezed together in a river valley. The merger of Idar and Oberstein occurred soon after that of Barmen and Elberfeld, in October 1933, producing a new town of just over 32,000 residents, on the river Nahe (semi-famous for its vineyards). The little creek separating the two parts is the Göttenbach, and a high school serving both towns was located near that boundary and called the Göttenbach-Gymnasium. Which is what brought my paternal grandparents there in 1951. They lived in Hauptstraße, literally just across the road from school (which was in the building now occupied by the municipal administration, which you can see here).

Postcard: Hauptstraße Idar Oberstein, 1953, looking towards a well camouflaged Felsenkirche. It is more conpicuous in recent photos where it is painted white. This is the street where my paternal grandparents lived until 1960, although I’m not sure whether the relevant building appears in this shot.

The maternal grandparents came there from Aachen in 1940, which looks like a strange move for a customs officer, but I am told my grandfather was transferred to a department involved in policing alcohol duties, so that sounds fun. Unfortunately, he was then called up for the war and didn’t come back. My grandmother died in Idar-Oberstein in 1962, less than two years after the other grandparents had moved to the sticks.

Idar-Oberstein in the post-war years was under French occupation control. I read that the authorities weren’t all that keen on prosecuting Nazi criminals. Instead, the Grande Nation relied on its cultural charms, with French being taught at the high school and French culture being supplied in abundance. I hear Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stayed there for a night in 1948 and watched an opera performance.

Desperate to create more space for cars, the town planners made the river Nahe disappear under a lid in the 1980s – they should have taken up the idea of Wuppertal and built a suspension railway above the river! Since the Nahe has disappeared, the remaining attractions of the town are now the Felsenkirche, a tiny church implausibly popping out of a vertical cliff face, where various people got married, and the museum of gems and minerals celebrating the long tradition of gemstone processing and trading. Links with Brazil are particularly strong, as many migrants from the region went there and sent minerals back. So you get to see lots of massive agates and amethysts hailing from Brazil but handled in Idar-Oberstein.

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935-1945
  7. Aachen 1936-1940
  8. Idar-Oberstein 1940-1962

Monday, January 11, 2021

post-truth is pre-fascism

Four years ago, ahead of the inauguration of a certain US president, I warned of the dangers of a post-truth world. After the November 2020 election that voted him out I wondered what we have to do to get some sense of truth back, after the world has become used to being flooded with toxic lies. Conspiracy theories not only disturb political process, they may also jeopardise the response to the Covid crisis.

I wrote a feature about this in the first week of December, writing about the strange beliefs of Republicans in the past tense, half hoping they might get bored of crazy conspiracies by the time the article comes out. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened and they decided it might be a good idea to storm the Capitol and try to prevent the completion of the official election process. A very good analysis of what happened, with just the right amount of references to Weimar Germany, is in this essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder - from which I borrowed the title of this blogpost. Snyder makes the point that, on top of all the small and medium sized lies, the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and had the presidency stolen from him could continue to bind his fanbase in their perceived victimhood and serve a future fascist coup like the Dolchstoss-Legende about the end of worldwar I served the Nazis. Trump might be too incompetent to lead that coup himself, but somebody else now patiently waiting in the wings could take over his devoted fanbase and use it for a successful putsch.

Now I'm somewhat less optimistic that the problem can still be fixed in the US, and if it can't the fallout will be catastrophic for the rest of the world as well, if only because raving lunatics around the world will feel encouraged to try the same. But to feed the small hopes we still have here are some thoughts on how to bring back a bit of reason.

Recovering a sense of reality

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 1, 11 January 2021, Pages R1-R3

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The denialists in the photos we had available in December looked comparatively sane compared to the photos from last week! Demonstration of denialists protesting against Covid restrictions in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo: Roy Zuo/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).)

Saturday, January 02, 2021

a city on the border

#lostcities episode 7: Aachen

Aachen is still there, physically, just lost to my family who left it behind. Today a city with 250,000 residents, it is doing quite well out of its technical university and the historic sites linked to Charlemagne who was crowned emperor there on Christmas Day 800. Located close to the point where the borderlines between Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium meet, it is also terrifically well connected with the high speed trains from Frankfurt and Cologne stopping there on their way to Paris or Brussels.

Aachen Hauptbahnhof in 1938, with the Haus Grenzwacht (which ironically never was the customs office although its name seems to suggest some sort of border protection function, but I think it refers only to it being an unusually high tower block for its time and close to the national border, so I suspect from the top you could probably see Belgium and the Netherlands. The Hauptzollamt is behind the viewer's back.

My grandfather worked at the customs office, and got moved around frequently, typically being relocated to a new city each time he got promoted. By the time he was posted to Aachen in January 1936, he had an official car and more than 100 people to boss around so it was kind of a last hurrah before the war from which he didn’t return.

When you step outside the main station, the former main customs office (Hauptzollamt) is on your left, it is now a listed building and looking very well kept, although I couldn’t find a postcard of it. Instead, the one above shows what may very well have been the view from his office window. The family lived in Mariabrunnstraße, just a block away from the Hauptzollamt and still close to the railway line. The street is a cul de sac for cars but has a footpath passing under the rails.

Although I have stayed at Aachen a couple of times and visited the sites mentioned, I haven't formed much of an attachment. One issue I have with the place is that I am missing the structure provided by a decent river. There is some water flowing from the Elisenbrunnen in the city centre and the area around that is ok, and the cathedral is an UNESCO World Heritage Site of course. I am also slightly spooked by the fact that the relevant time frame falls entirely into the Nazi era, so one can imagine the spirit prevailing in the main customs office, which by then would have been cleared of anybody who didn't go with the flow.

A modern photo of the Hauptzollamt (2014).
Source: Wikipedia

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935-1945
  7. Aachen 1936-1940

Friday, January 01, 2021

new year, new minuets

I would say happy new year everyone, but I guess last year's data show that the wishes don't really work, so let's just get on with it.

For the eleventh month of my Plague Year Bach Project, I have been bold and moved into a new key, choosing the Minuets from the second suite, which is in D minor. Thus, the first of the minuets is in D minor and the second in D major. After a quick go at sight reading both, I am now slightly scared by the awkward chords in the first minuet, so I'll start with the second, which looks quite a bit easier.

Some helpful links:

I'm starting with Inbal Segev's musings, as always, and I found recordings from:
Eva Lymenstull (that's the whole D minor suite, but I've included the timestamp for the minuets in the link to take you there directly).
Misha Maisky (ditto)
Laurens Price-Nowak (ditto)

I'm also adding these videos to my youtube playlist "cello repertoire".

In December, I didn't tackle a new movement but completed memorising the Bourrees from the third suite and also started playing the first bourree with a metronome. Also making progress with memorising the Gigue in C, only a couple of lines left to learn of this movement which is quite long. I've made a ranking of the movements in tiers last month (inspired by the covid tiers), but it now occurred to me that it would be more constructive to have a system where rising numbers mark progress (as in grade exams) rather than crisis levels. So, flipped upside down and with the bourrees promoted by a grade, my revision list now looks like this:

1) movements I've studied for a month, then put aside for now
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

2) movements memorised in a significant part
1.3 Courante (2/3)
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)
3.6. Gigue (4/5)

3) movements memorised in their entirety
1.4 Sarabande
1.5 Minuet I&II
1.6 Gigue
3.5 Bourree I&II

Future levels with higher numbers may include: able to play with a metronome at a reasonable speed, able to perform, actually performed.

Did I mention that Old Heinrich has a very beautiful backside?

Saturday, December 26, 2020

a city destroyed

#lostcities episode 6: Königsberg

The cities in the series were generally “lost” by the time I started school inasmuch as my family lost the habit of living in cities, like my grandparents and their parents had done between 1900 and the 1960s. Incidentally, there are also a couple of cities that were lost in a territorial sense in the wars of the 20th century, including Strasbourg, and in a more profound sense, Königsberg.

We learned at school that Königsberg is now called Kaliningrad, but from the pictures I have seen, my impression is that the centre of Königsberg was largely destroyed and the Russians built a new city called Kaliningrad instead. There was no population continuity either. The 20.000 survivors (out of more than 350,000 population in 1939) were deported to the Soviet occupied zone at the end of 1945, and the city was resettled as well as rebuilt.

Königsberg castle in 1936. I believe the houses on the right of the picture are the beginning of Münzstr., so no. 10 would have been a bit further to the right of this frame. Source.

Unlike the families who lost their roots with the territorial losses, mine only spent a decade at Königsberg, so it is not a deep trauma but more like a dream that went up in smoke. What happened was that in 1935 my very enterprising great-grandfather started working as a salesman for the clothes manufacturer C. Brühl in Rheydt, and the company sent him to Eastern Prussia to open up new markets for their clothes there. I have no idea what Julius did or said to bewitch the East Prussians, but his sales tour went so well that his employers allowed him to set up a spin-out factory in Königsberg. This was a joint venture at first, but he managed to buy out C. Brühl after a few years, so for a very fleeting moment in history he had a factory with 150 employees to his name, the Kleiderfabrik Ostland in Kantstr. 10 / Koggenstr. 9-10 and was living in a grand apartment in Münzstraße 10, just around the corner from the Königsberg Castle and on the bank of the castle’s lake. The lake came in very handy when the city was firebombed just a few years later.

Julius lost his only son in the war but the rest of the family saw what was coming and moved to safety on time (which was illegal of course as it was regarded as defeatism, but my grandmother had an elderly aunt in the West who quite suddenly needed her assistance), and he himself got out on one of the last ship that got through. So, well, it was a nice dream while it lasted, but I suspect there are no traces left to visit.

Two pictures from Wikipedia:

Promenade am Münzplatz, undated, I assume No. 10 must be included in this view (depends on whether the row has even numbers only or consecutive numbers).
Postcard, author unknown, source.

What's left of the castle: Archaeological excavation on old Palace Square near the House of Soviets in Kaliningrad
Source. What scares me most, however, is the vast empty space around the ruins. A look at Google Satellite images reveals that much of the area seems to serve as a vast car park now. The viewing direction in the photo above, from the excavation site towards the House of Soviets, is towards East-Southeast, roughly orthogonal to the long axis of the castle lake which is to the left of the frame. There appear to be post-war houses along the lake promenade, a block of three and then a block of four, ironically numbered with odd numbers only, 1 to 13.

PS: If anybody is confused about the history of the city, here's the quick runthrough copied over from Wikipedia, this will confuse you even more:
Old Prussians (until 1255)
Teutonic Order 1255–1466
Kingdom of Poland 1454-1455
Teutonic Order (fief of Poland) 1466–1525
Duchy of Prussia (fief of Poland) 1525–1656
Sweden 1656-1657
Duchy of Prussia 1657–1701
Kingdom of Prussia 1701–1758
Russian Empire 1758–1764
Kingdom of Prussia 1764–1871
German Empire 1871–1918
Weimar Germany 1918–1933
Nazi Germany 1933–1945
Soviet Union 1945–1991
Russia 1991–present

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935
  6. Königsberg 1935-1945

Friday, December 25, 2020

prisoners of climate change

book review:

Prisoners of geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

Tim Marshall

Elliott and Thompson paperback edition last updated 2019

If you’ve always wondered why Russia, China and the USA are so large, while other parts of the world present a patchwork of smaller countries, or why some areas seem to have permanent conflicts while others don’t, Tim Marshall has some very simple geographic answers for you, based on where the mountains and the plains are, how the rivers are navigable, and whether the coasts have natural harbours.

The vast North East European plain, for instance, where both Napoleon and Hitler sent their troops towards Moscow, explains why Russia had to grow big to find safety in strategic depth, and why it sought additional layers of shielding in the shape of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It is also why Russians don’t like the idea of a westernised Ukraine. Marshall explains similar geographic drivers behind China’s obsession with Tibet, or Israel’s problems with Gaza and the West Bank.

Elsewhere, it’s not so much the geography that drives conflict, but the colonialists’ complete recklessness at ignoring it and just drawing lines on their maps of Africa and the Middle East to create states that have no rhyme or reason to exist. Thus, people in Iraq or the DRC are not only prisoners of geography but also of the fallout from colonialism.

This is all good and well and does a good job at giving a round-the-globe overview for a globalised time, bringing together issues that many people will have only registered separately or partially. Marshall published the original version in 2015, and has done some patching up to fit in developments like Brexit and the fall-out from the Trump presidency.

What he fails to include adequately, however, is climate change. While he dedicates a chapter to the changing reality of the Arctic and also mentions elsewhere that Bangladesh is at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels, his discussion of the strategic importance of energy resources such as new gas and oil reserves in the Arctic never once mentions the fact that humanity cannot afford to use these resources if we are hoping to keep warming under the Paris goal of 2 degrees. Heck, if we do use the fossil fuels in the Arctic, we’re probably going to go over 4 degrees in my lifetime.

Unless we’re going to live in a world run by a cynically operating Russia – standing to benefit from climate change and not giving a damn about the rest of the world – the whole geopolitical reasoning explained in the book will have to change fundamentally, because we are not only prisoners of geography, but also prisoners of the man-made climate catastrophe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

high capacity

When the limitations of current battery technology is discussed, super capacitors always come up as an alternative with potential. In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry I have had a closer look at that potential and the important question whether super capacitors can also be produced super sustainably:

Super-power capacitors

Chemistry & Industry Volume 84, Issue 12 December 2020 Pages 22-26

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI - appears to be on open access right now

The same issue (page 35) also contains my review of Paul Halpern's new book, Synchronicity, which is about acausal connections in physics, especially quantum physics, represented by Wolfgang Pauli, and in psychology, represented by Pauli's therapist, a certain C. G. Jung.

access via:

Wiley Online Library

SCI (premium content)

Monday, December 21, 2020

viral variants

Four weeks ago I prepared the last Curr. Biol. feature for this year, about Covid-19 related sequencing work and the mutations and variants observed. (Even longer ago I planned this topic as a way of drawing a line under this plague year. Didn't quite work out that way.) It has been online as a preprint for a couple of weeks, but the proper version just came out today, as the whole world is debating this new UK variant of the virus. Oh well.

Pandemic genomics

Current Biology Volume 30, issue 24, pages R1455-R1457, December 21, 2020

access to full text and PDF download

This is currently on open access as part of the general Covid-19 info policy from Cell Press. Should that change, it will become open access again one year after publication

Any problems with the link above, try the:
Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has spread globally and caused a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu pandemic. The rapid elucidation of its structural biology and genomics, however, offers opportunities to better understand its spread and to develop vaccines and treatments. (Photo: used with permission of Sai Li, Tsinghua University (Cell (2020) 183, 730–738).)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

a Hauptbahnhof without a city

#lostcities, episode 5

Here comes a mysterious city that doesn’t exist any more and was even wiped off the map twice, but it still has a Hauptbahnhof (main station). And my grandmother went to school there, so it definitely did exist about a century ago.

Rheydt was a city in the lower Rhine flatlands, and its misfortune was that it was too close to the slightly bigger Mönchengladbach (famous mainly for its football team). Both cities were merged to form Gladbach-Rheydt in August 1929, but it so happened that Joseph Goebbels was from Rheydt and objected to the merger, so after the Nazis came to power they swiftly reversed it.

The second takeover came in 1975, and this time the combined city kept the name of Mönchengladbach, so the patriots of the old Rheydt only find consolation in the railway station which remains Rheydt Hbf.

Rheydt 1927

Between 1900 and 1960, my direct ancestors (parents to great-grandparents = 14 people) always lived in towns or cities, with one exception. In 1918, my great-grandparents of the Düsselmann clan acquired an orchard farm in Mennrath, near Rheydt, hoping to live off their savings and 200 apple trees. Obviously, the 1923 hyperinflation wiped out the savings and old Julius had to find a regular job again, which he did first in Mönchengladbach, then in Rheydt, so the family ended up moving to Rheydt. (To me the moral is, don’t move to the countryside, it will end in tears!)

In Rheydt, Julius started working for a new(ish) textile manufacturer, C. Brühl und co., founded in Rheydt in 1923. It never ceases to amaze me, but this company still exists, although it moved to a different town, and it still makes clothes to this day. Not exactly the price range that I normally buy (i.e. second hand from Oxfam), but if they make it to their centenary, I’ll buy a pair of C. Brühl trousers so I can say my great-grandfather worked for this company 100 years ago. This connection is kind of important in shaping the course of my family history, because it was C. Brühl which sent old Julius to Königsberg, which will be the next stop in our series.

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
  5. Rheydt 1923 - 1935

Saturday, December 12, 2020

once there were emperors

#lostcities, episode 4

Tangermünde is a small town with a big history. First mentioned in 1009, it was an important centre of trade and power in the times of the Hanse (14th and 15th century, mainly) and was a residence for Emperor Charles IV for a while, but then curiously fell by the wayside. For instance, the Berlin-Lehrte railway line, opened in 1871, might have had a station serving that town, but in the end the neighbouring town of Stendal (where the French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle found his pseudonym) got the station and thus easy rail links to Berlin and Hannover.

Tangermünde 1905, view across the river Elbe

The picturesque city fortification seen in the classic view from the river also has something to do with it – although it no longer protects the city from invading armies, it does protect it from the floods of the river Elbe, so pulling down the walls and expanding the city into the floodplain wasn’t a workable idea. This way, the town retained much of its historic appearance and size. In 1903, it had 11,500 residents (now it has even fewer, just over 10,000)

The railway did arrive eventually in the shape of a branch line of just 10 km length, between Tangermünde and Stendal, built in the 1880s mainly for the sugar factory, but passenger trains are also available. Richard the railway man was presumably involved in that project, as he moved his family (including young Heinrich the future cellist) to Tangermünde at that time. After a brief spell in Stendal, Heinrich went to school (Bürgerschule) there and later married in the historic church of St. Stephan, although by that time he was an army musician based far away in Lorraine. At the same time, his sister married there as well, and her family stayed in the area. One of her descendants got married in the same church more than a century later.

All of which means I really should go and visit that place, I’ve never been.

#lostcities series so far:

  1. Elberfeld / Wuppertal 1919 - 1961
  2. Strasbourg 1901 - 1908
  3. Minden 1903 - 1952
  4. Tangermünde 1888 - 1916
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