Friday, October 30, 2009

architect honoured but not commissioned

Architect Santiago Calatrava was among those honoured by the University of Oxford this summer (along with local author Philip Pullman), but I reckon the University's enthusiasm for his work wouldn't extend to commissioning a building from him ?! There would be plenty of space at the Radcliffe Observatory site.

If you look at the world map of Calatrava's works, there is a suspicious white area just north of the English Channel. One might blame it on the heir to the throne who devours modern architects for breakfast, but I also have a nagging suspicion that those people handling big building budgets around here just don't have the courage to ask somebody like him, who would build something really special. Now I dream of a new Oxford spire ...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shingai Shoniwa

If you don't know who Shingai Shoniwa is, you're missing something. Ok, so I'm guilty too, I actually saw her perform last week without knowing her name. She's the face (and voice, bass player, and dancer) of UK trio The Noisettes.

Here's Shingai riding the crowds:

... mingling with the audience:

... caressing ...

... and walking on the audience:

She's also been playing the bass:

showing her legs:

... and bending over backwards to make everybody happy:

And guess what, it worked. Oh, and she can sing, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

solar century

I reviewed "The solar century" by Jeremy Leggett (ed.) for Chemistry & Industry, a nicely illustrated plea for going solar, with all the arguments why we must and how we can. That's in issue 20, (26.10.2009), p 29. Probably premium content, but here's a snippet from the end of my review:

Alas, the solar century has had a rather sluggish start in some parts of the world, but it could still happen. And with the evidence for human-induced climate change piling up, it is becoming increasingly obvious that our century must become the solar century, or more widely defined, a renewable energy century, if it isn’t to become a different book title, namely our final century.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

science findings

today I was going to tell you all about my new articles that came out this week, but none of the magazines involved has updated their website so far, so there isn't much point as I can't post links.

In other science news, though, I attended a day of very interesting seminars on genomics organised by Oxford Nanopore Technologies and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. The event included a lab tour, which was a bit of a shock to the system -- last time I saw people sequencing genes, they cast their own gels and read out the bases by visual inspection. Reassuring to see that the centrifuges still look exactly the same. And the "lab culture" as revealed by the notes stuck to everything (one read "failure") was still pretty familiar as well.

Anyhow, I'm hoping to get a couple of stories (genome sequencing technology, epigenetics, etc.) out of this (not to mention lots of new contacts on twitter etc.), so watch this space.

Monday, October 26, 2009

the world's a stage

Third in my series "things I like the look / design of" is very much not a design but a look, namely the look of a messy stage overcrowded with the collected instruments and electronics of two bands, just before a concert. It's not just the anticipation, I really like to look at this. Which is just as well, as sometimes one stands there for two hours looking at it :)
This one is of the Noisettes, and their support act, Little Camels:

pix from the actual concert(last Thu at the Oxford O2 academy) to follow.


(last update: 18.4.2021)

Another batch of family history, this time the descendants of the Imig family (Wilhelm Imig and Regina Catharina Strack) from the Hunsrück area. His paternal lineage can be traced back to Peter Imig who was born in Fronhofen in 1620, and some other lineages go back even further (see below).

The Imigs are linked to a group of would-be migrants that left the palatinate in the 18th century but never made it to the New World. Some of them, including my ancestors, got stuck in the Simmern area, others at the lower rhine, where in 1820 a whole new village (Louisendorf) was founded as a new home for these migrants. The name Imig is still common in that area, though rare elsewhere. In spite of the failure of the 18th century emigration attempt, there are now also descendants of Peter Imig in the US.

Two of the seven children of Wilhelm Imig are my great-great-grandmothers (2. and 4.). Regarding the descendants of 3. Regina I know some details from an old letter where the family members are listed. Some descendants of 1. Julius Imig are found online. Of the descendants of the others I know only what my grandmother could remember, so if anybody can enlighten me on these, I’d grateful for hints.

I picked the couple of Wilhelm Imig and Regina Catharina Strack as a starting point, as they are the same generation as Wilhelm Düsselmann and Elisabetha de la Strada (see the Krefeld Clan), and for this generation we still have a reasonable chance to get all descendants together (as my grandmother knew most of her second cousins at least by name). Also, I think it is revealing to focus on this early 19th century generation which enjoyed a relatively stable life (mostly they stayed in one place and within the same profession for several generations around this time). The branches protruding both forward, and backward from these typically spread out both geographically (surprising amount of mobility in the 17th and 16th century!) and socially.

Regina Catharina Strack’s ancestry is linked to the Andres family, who were butchers, then innkeepers at Kirn, and in 1862 founded the family business that brews Kirner Pils to this day. Our ancestors shared with the brewers are documented at Kirn back to the 15th century. Ironically, the longest reasonably well-documented line in my family tree, after (or before) an absence of more than three hundred years spent trundling about in various parts of Germany (in the widest sense), leads back to my birthplace.

But now for the descendants:


Wilhelm Imig * 28. 7.1820 Simmern + 31. 6.1877 Simmern

} oo 12. 3.1844 Simmern

Regina Catharina Strack * 21. 1.1817 Simmern + 8. 5.1877 Simmern


had 7 children und ca. 40 grandchildren
(Details left in German are those my grandmother told me, so I didn't want them to get lost in translation. results of my later research are in English.):

1. Michael Julius Imig * 17.1.1845 Simmern + 15.2.1888 Viersen, Bauunternehmer
oo Anna Katharina Enders * 19.11.1850 Monzingen, + 1.1.1916 Mettmann
1.1. Katharina oo Steffan
1.2. Heinrich, Ingenieur bei Bayer Leverkusen
1.3. Regina Karolina (Lina) * 5.9.1876 Viersen + 27.1.1951 Mettmann oo Ernst Gustav Meyer (1863-1930) in Mettmann
1.3.1. Karl
1.3.2. Alfred
1.3.x. Ernst Meyer * 5.12.1902 Mettmann + 2.1987 Lahnstein oo Anna Helene Martin * 1902 Winterbach +1996 Lahnstein Tochter(
1.4. Julius (1879-1959), headteacher at Wülfrath, founder of the local history museum there , see his CV here. The town also has a street named after him.

2. Margarethe (1847-1930) oo Christoph Kauer (1845-1909)
2.1. Christoph Gottlieb Matthias *12.10.1875, + 11.11.1875
2.2. Johanna Sofia * 9.11.1876 Mühlhausen, + 26.11.1953 Hahnenbach
2.3. Auguste (1879-1952) oo (1900) Wilhelm Fuchs (1872-1963) Postinspektor Münster a.St.
2.3.1. Helene (1901-1965) oo Petz
2.3.2. Natalie “Nelly” (1906-1984) oo (1931) Christian Paust
2.4. Anna Katharina (1880-1965) oo Heinrich Thiebold (1877-1948) aus Brebach (Saar), Oberlehrer
2.4.1. Erwin * 1902, an Krupp gestorben
2.4.2. Martha (1907- ) oo Willi Helmer, Saarbrücken +1986
2.4.3. Robert * 1910 oo Aenne Schmidt
2.4.4. Herta * 1917
2.5. Louise Regina gen. Kätha (1883-1960)
2.6. Helene oo Julius Düsselmann
4.4.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
4.4.2. Werner (1911-1941)
4.4.3. Esther (1918-1983)
2.7. Karl (1888-1891) an den Masern gestorben

3. Regina Imig (1849-1900) oo Heinrich Herrmann (-1900), Gefängnisaufseher in Simmern, Koblenz
3.1. Gustav (1876-1917), Lehrer in Winningen
3.1.1. Reinhold
3.1.2. Walth
3.2. Heinrich (1878-), Polsterer, nach USA ausgewandert, dort oo
3.3. Luise (1879- ) Lippstadt
3.3.1. Luise
3.3.2. Auguste
3.3.3. Heini-Karl
3.4. Auguste (1880-1903)
3.5. Karl (1886- ) Köln-Nippes
3.5.1. Irene

4. Elisabeth = Nr. 37. (1851-1924) oo Karl Düsselmann (1841-1927)
4.1. Elise (1876-1944) oo Otto Finkensieper, Alkmaar, NL
4.1.1. Otto (1906-), Theologe
4.1.2. Kurt (1907-), Kaufmann in Scheveningen
4.1.3. Benjamin (1910-) Kaufmann in Scheveningen
4.2. Wilhelm (1878-) oo Hedwig (*1883) aus Wuppertaler Gegend. Wohnten zunächst in Neuß, 1924 nach USA emigriert
4.1. Willi *1909), Arzt in USA, kinderlos (laut Überlieferung) (=William 1909-1996, Collier, FL? oo Daisy Ethel ?) MD 1934, Univ. Rochester.
4.3. Auguste (1880-1968) oo Max Finke (1879-1914), Graveur
4.3.1. Martha (1907-) oo Friedrich Ernst Winkelmann (1905-1975) 4.3.2. Alfred (1908-1989) oo Gerda Reichenbach
4.3.3. Hilde (1910-1989) oo Christian Goetze (1908-1995)
4.3.4. Rudolf (1911-1982) oo Käthe
4.4. Julius (1883-1950) oo Helene Kauer (2.6. above)
4.4.1. Ruth (1908-1993)
4.4.2. Werner (1911-1941)
4.4.3. Esther (1918-1983)
4.5. Alwine oo Willi Esser, Sattlermeister, Neukirchen-Vluyn
4.5.1. Wilhelm (1911-) oo Gretchen
4.5.2. Juliane (1913-1925)
4.5.3. Otto
4.5.4. Margarete (1917-1964)
4.6. Hedwig oo ...
keine Kinder

5. Wilhelm Imig (1853-1901) Mörchingen, Bahnbeamter in Köln
oo Brigitte Meyer aus Metz
5.1. Rudolf (+1914)
4 Kinder
5.2. Karl (+1952)
5.2.1. Karl (1911-WW2) Gärtner in Essen
5.2.2. Elisabeth DDR
5.2.3. Helmut
5.2.4. Ilse DDR

6. Gottfried Imig (1856-1924) Anstreicher in Mörchingen 11 Kinder: Margarete, Auguste, Katharina, Karl, Josephine, Dina, Rudolf

7. Karl Imig (1860-1921) Bauunternehmer
oo Minna Hoch
His name is mentioned in the documents of two listed buildings at Viersen, one from 1905, the other from 1906 (same source but the link isn't recognised).
7.1. Karl (1890-1954) Studienrat Altphil. oo Aloisia Dietl * 1887 Oberndorf, Austria
7.1.1. Karl-Richard (1917-44) Kapitänleutnant (died on U173)
7.1.2. Renate, Ärztin in Mönchengladbach
7.1.3. Dieter, Kaufmann
7.2. Else
7.3. Johanna
7.4. Emilie oo Gillessen, Rheydt
1 Tochter, oo Oberschulrat P ..., Mainz
7.5. Martha Postbeamtin, Viersen

A note (2021) on the migration story here - given the colonies of Imig relatives in Pfalzdorf in the lower Rhine it strikes me that 5 of the 7 siblings migrated in that direction too, but not to the actual settlements. I'm assuming the oldest went to Viersen first, and may have helped the others to follow. Note that Julius died quite young in 1888, but his youngest brother followed him in the building sector, so they may have worked together at Viersen at one point. The buildings that have Carl's name attached were built long after Julius died.


key words: family history, genealogy, Genealogie, Ahnenforschung, Familienforschung, Vorfahren, Abstammung, Kirn, Nahe, Simmern, Hunsrück, Rheinland-Pfalz,

Friday, October 23, 2009

oxford enlightenment

nights are drawing in, so I can continue my series of photographs of Oxford by night:

this one, in case it isn't obvious, is of a builder's scaffolding where someone forgot to switch off the light ...

More pix on my view profile, and a smaller selection appears in larger format on fotocommunity.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

fish tank

just to mention an English language movie for a change, I saw Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank at our local picturehouse cinema last week and loved it. To save me the trouble of raving on about it, here is an excellent review by the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, and I agree with everything he says.

Haven't figured out where the title comes from. If it's relating to anything in the film, I missed that bit. Does it refer to the bloke's fish catching technique ?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

what DID the researchers find ?

In last Thursday's Guardian there is a full page in the main section on new research on the epigenome (i.e. the way the information in the genome is regulated). I read the whole page twice and still didn't know anything about what the new research was and what its results were.

The only useful information was that researchers at the Salk institute in California published something in Nature (even that was half wrong, it wasn't in the current issue of Nature, but only online in Nature's advanced online publications).

When the Guardian stopped publishing a weekly science supplement (to which I occasionally contributed), we were promised regular science coverage in the main pages instead. However, what is the use of this coverage if all meaningful content is removed from it? I mean, what is the point of spending a whole page on explaining what the epigenome is and that it may help to cure cancer and schizophrenia (which, by the way, I consider to be just hype, it may or may not do that, just as any fundamental research in the life sciences may help to find a cure for cancer), if we aren't actually told what the researchers did and what they found out?

This amounts to treating the readers as complete idiots, it's like telling them that storks deliver babies. I'll now open a new category in this blog, called storks+babies, dedicated to science reporting that has been simplified to death.

In a hurry, I only found one report that is more informative (even though it's shorter) here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

time for quinces

It's the season for picking quinces and doing something with them -- my infant quince tree has had 8 of them this year, so I made my notorious baked quince dessert the last two weekends. Here's one of the 8 before it got eaten:

Alternatively, people in the UK can also get all things quincy from this company set up by a fellow quince maniac as a retirement project.

PS my two citrus trees are also bearing fruit, but these are a little smaller than usual. lemons just one cm in diameter, oranges maybe 2 cm.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

the great bluff

From 1998 to 2002, an innocent-looking post-doc from Germany committed what probably amounts to the biggest fraud in physics in recent decades, publishing over 30 forged papers in high profile journals including Nature and Science. In her book "Plastic Fantastic", Eugenie Samuel Reich unravels the reasons why this could happen. I reviewed the book for C&I, using my 1200 words length limit to the last, as I believe that this is in fact a very important question, and the answers I have seen before reading this book haven't really been satisfactory.

The most worrying aspect of the story is that he could have gotten away with it, as I have explained in this snippet:

Had he acted in cold blood and considered his best path towards the Max-Planck directorship that he narrowly missed, he would have slowed down after six or seven papers in Nature and Science. He would have revolutionised fewer areas and backed up his first breakthroughs with some real research or at least with some more real-looking data. This way he would have committed fewer errors, his string of breakthroughs would have appeared less implausible and raised less suspicion. Critics would have taken a lot longer to figure out that there was something wrong with his work. And in that extra time, some of the breakthroughs that he anticipated might actually have happened, so he would have been vindicated by other researchers.

One aspect that in my opinion has been underappreciated is that the huge rewards on offer for publishing certain kinds of results in certain journals (namely Nature and Science) put a massive amount of pressure on people working in labs with this kind of ambition (as I know from experience). Much as societies with steep social inequality breed crime, this situation will always tempt some people to forge these results if they can't get them the regular way. After writing my review of the book, I checked the reviews published in both journals, and found that this issue was neatly swept under the rug in both of them. What a coincidence.

My review is in Chemistry & Industry No. 19, p 26 (restricted access).

Friday, October 16, 2009

genome tipping point

I've been saying this in my nanoworld book already: if the living cell can read a single molecule of DNA, why can't we? Now, at last, single molecule genome sequencing has arrived, and it promises to revolutionise genome sequencing by reducing its price to a level where it can become part of standard medical provision in many countries. For instance, cancer treatments could routinely be based on comparison of the genomes of tumour and healthy cells of the specific patient, so the doctors can identify the Achilles heel of this particular tumour.

Three companies are competing with different approaches to this goal. While they weren't keen on making predictions regarding times and prices, I found out very interesting things about their technologies. My news feature on this is now out:

The $1000 genome in sight with the latest technology
The price of sequencing an entire human genome is falling fast, thanks to a new generation of sequencing technologies, but how low can it go?
Chemistry & Industry No. 19, p 14-15.
surprisingly, it appears to be open access

Incidentally, one of the companies involved, Helicos BioSciences, also has a paper in last week's issue of Nature, on sequencing cellular RNA directly (without producing complementary DNA first) and at single molecule level.
That's Nature 461, 814.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

meeting marine needs

Earthwatch Europe is hosting another set of public lectures at London tonight:

Meeting Marine Needs
Thursday 15 October 2009, 7pm to 8.30pm, The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR

Dennis Sammy, from the organisation Nature Seekers, will talk about "Trinidad's Leatherback Sea Turtles", which are at risk from poaching and accidental capture in fishing nets.

Nienke van Geel, from Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, will present the project "Whales and Dolphins of the Hebrides", a long-term survey of these mammals in the seas off Scotland, which is crucial to establish how they are affected by human activities and climate change.

I've heard both talks in rehearsal stage and can promise an interesting evening. As always, you can sign up to take part in these projects as a volunteer helper.

full details

reserve your space
Numbers are limited so call +44 (0)1865 318856 or email to avoid disappointment!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

blind as a bat ?

Thanks to a tweet from Peter (@PD_Smith) I was reminded of the issue of echolocation in blind humans, which appears to be so unknown in the UK that the BBC ran a news story on a child using the technique.

Goes to show that we live on an island – elsewhere it is quite common for blind people to tap their sticks very loudly and use the echo for orientation. I lived in Marburg for two years, where Germany’s national school for blind people is located, and the first thing to learn when you move to that city is to jump into the next ditch when you hear loud tapping sounds approaching. Well I’m only exaggerating slightly. Truth is, many blind people there walk around so fast and confidently that they are almost a danger to others.

I had considered this the normal state of affairs until a few years ago I came across the issue again when editing entries for a UK based encyclopaedia, where the entries for echolocation and blindness seemed to lack this piece of information. Doing a bit of research I found a text by Jim Blackshear, apparently written as teaching material. Apart from various interesting bits of history (apparently human echolocation was first observed by Diderot in 1749, so well done to the BBC for trying to sell it as news!), the text also contained the crucial information as to why the technique is unknown in some countries and common in others. Apparently, many people, especially when they are blind from an early age, develop the technique naturally, but in some places it is actively discouraged by education professionals.

Blackshear cites Robert Feinstein who writes in Bent Voices:

Sadly, echolocation is not talked about, nor is it taught. It's only learned intuitively or by example. I read about it only once, in a book called Follow My Leader, which claimed that an eleven-year-old boy, blinded by a firecracker explosion, had developed the skill. From all that I can tell, however, those blinded later in life almost never learn how to do it. I know a girl, blind at fourteen, who will walk smack into a wall, even though she has been blind for twenty-eight years. Once she walked straight into the closed door of my lobby. "Didn't you hear that door?" I asked incredulously. "Don't be a retard!" she countered, "you don't hear doors!" "I do!" I said, in my most condescending voice. "Yeah, right!" she said, and I supposed you hear traffic lights!" "I hate you damn sighted blind people!" I remonstrated, and changed the subject before we got into a fight.

As we grow older and learn to use canes or dogs we grow to rely less on the information gained from echolocation. The skill is there, but it can go dormant. Mobility instructors discourage echolocation, especially clicking. While training with my first dog, I forgot myself and clicked to determine if I was near a pole. The instructor told me that my dog would be taken from me if I continued to make "those sounds," that they served no purpose, that they made blind people objects of ridicule. And furthermore, I'd confuse the dog. I stopped clicking—until I returned home!

Now that really drove me up the wall when I read that he was discouraged from clicking. If you have the choice between not perceiving your environment at all, and perceiving it through echolocation while looking a bit silly, I think it is perfectly obvious what everybody would and should do. Discouraging people from using echolocation is to me like robbing them of their eyesight all over again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

act globally

What happens if we fail to reduce our carbon emissions fast enough to stop catastrophic climate change? Some scientists, such as the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, think that we may end up having to "engineer" the climate at a global scale in order to compensate for our failing and to avert catastrophe.

Last month, an official report commissioned by the UK's science academy, the Royal Society, has moved this subject closer to scientific respectability, and assessed the options. Note, however,that this is strictly a plan B, not an excuse for doing nothing about the CO2 emissions.

Read my news feature in today's issue of Current Biology:

Global chemistry
Current Biology
Volume 19, Issue 19 (13.10.2009), p R879

Monday, October 12, 2009

bees, genes, and tweets

The round-up of German publications in October includes bees that don't buzz so busily any more, gene diagnostics being replaced by genome diagnostics, and a look into a future where tweeting has become the main communications medium:

Bienensterben: Sag mir, wo die Bienen sind
Chemie in unserer Zeit 43 Nr. 5, S. 267
Published Online: Oct 9 2009 6:27AM
DOI: 10.1002/ciuz.200990054

Von der Gendiagnostik zur Genomdiagnostik
Nachrichten aus der Chemie S. 1000-1001
Published Online: Oct 12 2009 7:57AM
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.200967400

Schöne neue Welt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie S. 970
Published Online: Oct 12 2009 7:57AM
DOI: 10.1002/nadc.200969141

PS: oops, I forgot:

Der Autor zahlt
Trillium Report 7, Nr. 3, S. 109

this last one is about Open Access publishing, juxtaposed with another piece on the same area by Claudia Borchard-Tuch.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bat for Lashes

I saw Bat for Lashes at the Oxford Academy last Thursday, which was a first both regarding the band and the venue. As I only discovered BFL recently and only know the current album, it was all new territory, but certainly worth exploring. I was amazed to find that they managed to recreate their rather complex sound landscape on the stage. Front woman and creative genius behind the whole enterprise, Natasha Khan, is really sweet. If any proof of this were needed: she kicked off her boots after the second song and performed the rest of the show barefoot. Which of course reminds us of Shakira, who I hear praised BFL at the recent VMAs.

But the other musicians are forces to be reckoned with. Seeing them on stage, I realised that what keeps the whole ethereal voice thing from drifting off into easy listening land is the crisp and energetic drumming -- coming from a surprisingly harmless looking female (we weren't introduced, but according to the MySpace site her name is Sarah Jones). Then there is Charlotte Hatherley on guitars and bass, who is also pursuing a solo career (check out her myspace music site), and Ben Christophers on keyboards. Plus two string players in the background and possibly somebody else using computers (hard to tell what all those people behind big boxes are doing all evening).

Here's Natasha:

and the band:

After the current tour around the UK and a few cities in continental Europe, they are going to support Coldplay in Latin America -- should be fun scaling this up to stadium size. Full tour schedule is here.

I'll need to get their first album as well ...

Friday, October 09, 2009

aaaauuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhh !

Shakira's She-Wolf album is out today in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Holland, and Switzerland.

We here in the UK, along with the rest of Europe, and Latin America have to wait till Monday (which is tough, but an improvement on previous occasions, when the UK release was delayed by months and I had to order things from abroad, which wouldn't work now, as the post is deteriorating from occasional walk-outs to a proper strike). So I'll be at HMV first thing Monday morning ...

Visibility and airplay here in the UK are(again) quite poor, but I hope the release is at least making a nice splash in the rest of the world. All news on official website, or follow her tweet feed.

The website also includes a touching tribute to Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa, who passed away last week. Shakira recorded with her the song "La Maza" which was featured on Sosa's CD "Cantora" and performed live with her last year.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

favourite designs

As part two of my "things I like the look of" I was going to show the new British coins -- very surprisingly, they actually picked a very clever design for last year's revamp, where each coin is like a keyhole revealing part of a bigger picture :)

looking it up on Wikipedia, I found out that reproducing images of UK coins and banknotes, in whatever size and on whatever material will get me tarred, feathered, quartered, hanged and drowned, or something along these lines.

So I'll just post a link to wiki instead (apparently they have obtained an exceptional permission to show the coins, which they have to renew every year, or else they will be tarred ... etc.):

UK coin design.

I have by now collected nice specimens of all coins except the 1 pound coin (the one which contains the solution of the jigsaw).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

public enemy

Ulrike Meinhof: Die Biographie
Jutta Ditfurth
Ullstein 2007

Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who would have turned 75 today, was West Germany’s public enemy No. 1 from a fateful day in May 1970 through to her death in a purpose-built high-security prison six years later, and indeed well beyond the grave. Together with Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, she was seen as the co-founder of the organisation that was to develop into the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), built on the mistaken belief that it could trigger a revolution by starting urban guerrilla warfare against a state they saw as increasingly oppressive. The group killed a total of 34 people, and its own casualties, combined with the random ones killed by police forces going over the top, were on a similar scale. What it eventually achieved was exactly the opposite of what it set out to do – it made the state more oppressive. Many democratic rights and civil liberties were cut and undermined by the social democrat / liberal democrat governments of the 70s striving to be seen as tough in their fight against terrorism.

With all the panic and witch-hunting that marked these “years of terror”, few people realised that the biographies of the failed revolutionaries were completely at odds with the public image spread by government and media. The RAF was probably the only political organisation of its time that was dominated and led by women. Among the male recruits, there were adventurers who got a kick out of the idea of playing war with real guns (the name Andreas Baader springs to mind). Most of the members, however, and the women especially, came to the movement from social engagements, either working with marginal groups of society, or, in the later stages, motivated by the ill treatment of the first generation of RAF prisoners.

Ulrike Meinhof also had a track record of helping the weakest and most marginalised groups of society (e.g. teenagers in care homes), but beyond that she also was one of the country’s most talented political journalists. As a columnist for left-wing magazine Konkret, she was the most eloquent critic of German politics in the 1960s, from the remilitarisation through to the “Notstandsgesetze”.

How somebody of that intellectual standing, who commands a significant audience, can turn their back on society and take up arms in a struggle that was doomed from the start is a very important question that justifies a major biography. While there have been shorter volumes on Meinhof (e.g. by Peter Brückner, Mario Krebs), Jutta Ditfurth’s magnum opus is much more ambitious in scope.

Herself a lifelong dissident, the daughter of science writer Hoimar von Ditfurth dropped the aristocratic “von” from her name and became a founding member of Germany’s Green Party, which she left after a few years as it drifted away from the radical idealism of its founders. With hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Ditfurth should have been drawn to this subject.

And what a success she made of it. It shows on every page that, while she doesn’t agree with the violent path that Meinhof took, Ditfurth does understand perfectly well what made her tick, and how she felt that society had taken a wrong turn. She uses the pivotal liberation of Andreas Baader in 1970, after which Meinhof had to live undercover, as an opening scene, she tells the life essentially in chronological order, from the background of her parents, who both died young and left Ulrike in the care of her mother’s friend, the academic Renate Riemeck, through to the prison years and the controversial death, which the authorities hastily labelled a suicide. Conspiracy theories implying that she was murdered in her cell at Stuttgart-Stammheim have never quite been quelled, and Ditfurth returns an open verdict on this prickly question.

The family and political networks that shaped her life before 1970 come alive on these pages and make make the ensuing tragedy all the more dramatic. There are gaps in the post-1970 knowledge, which is inevitable because of the clandestine nature of the RAF operations, which have never been unravelled in court. (Typically, all members caught were convicted on the basis of being members of a terrorist organisation by the very same judges that had previously rejected any guilt to be associated with membership of Nazi organisations, one of the many bitter ironies in this story.)

Jutta Ditfurth has delivered the definitive account of the life of somebody who could have been one of post-war Germany’s most admired intellectuals and instead turned into its most-hated (which, of course, requires a great deal of courage from the author, as some of that residual hatred will surely be reflected in her direction). The poet Erich Fried called Meinhof the most important German woman since Rosa Luxemburg. The way both women perished should concern us all.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

where there's smoke

In this day and age, is it still defendable to burn wood waste on an open fire, not only releasing all that CO2 but wasting the energy as well and directly heating the atmosphere ? People around here seem to be particularly keen to do their bit for global warming by burning their garden waste (and sometimes even unwanted furniture) in the open air, e.g. as an autumn bonfire.

Here's one case which I find particularlly irritating as it involves an agency that is meant to protect the environment:

A few weeks ago, I started noticing that the unkempt wooded area by the river Cherwell, opposite the University Parks being cleared, and many cubic metres of waste wood being piled up and burnt in situ:

I did some grumbling and muttering each time I passed the site, but didn't know who to complain to. After a few weeks, this sign appeared:

so I emailed Natural England to ask whether they considered it good environmental protection practice to heat the atmosphere (I bit my tongue and phrased the question a bit more politely than that). An adviser involved in the project explained that there was a surface water problem, which required clearing the ditches. Re. the wood clearing she said:

"In order to get to the ditches we needed to clear a large area of willows which are old pollards and have over the years split, grown into the ground and extended into the fields. We also coppiced lengths of the hedge. We had to get rid of the wood as being willow and poplar it will regrow if left on site and it was a choice of burning on site or removing off site to landfill or burning off site. It was decided to burn on site as we didn’t want lots of movement of machines over the fields which can cause compaction and more surface water problems. 2 sites have been burnt on, one was an existing bonfire site and the other is in fact lifted off the ground using logs and a tin sheet so that the heat doesn’t come into contact with the ground. The ash is going to be moved off site."

Replying to this I asked why they didn't offer the wood as firewood to local people to collect (e.g. via Freecycle, which works amazingly well in Oxford), but haven't heard back.

I really can't believe that what they have done was the best option for the environment.

Monday, October 05, 2009

exploring bohemia

a new review of an old book -- I have no idea how I managed to miss this when it came out, nor how I could live without it :)

Virginia Nicholson: Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939

Penguin paperback 2003

Virginia Nicholson describes the citizens, customs, and traditions of a country that doesn’t exist, but which is instantly recognisable: Bohemia. Using the lead metaphor of a virtual country of which Bohemians of the early 20th century were the inhabitants, she gives us a very detailed and colourful account of what life was like in that virtual place and real time.

Nicholson is, of course, supremely qualified to serve as Bohemia’s ambassador to the modern world, as she descends from a family of Bohemian celebrities. She’s not called Virginia for nothing: Virginia Woolf was her great-aunt, Woolf’s biographer Quentin Bell her father, and Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, her grandmother. (Oh, and Julian Bell, whose adventures in China inspired Hong Ying was Quentin's brother. What a family.)

Considering these family connections, it would have been easy for her to explore the faraway realm of Bohemia through the eyes of its best-known citizens. Instead, she turned her attention to the lives and times of the less successful artists and writers, to those for whom the move from “normal” England to Bohemia often meant a descent into real hardship.

Like an anthropologist describing the customs of a remote pacific island population, Nicholson studies the minute details of everyday life in Bohemia and devotes separate chapters to elementary aspects of the lives of the natives, including money, love life, education, interior decoration, clothes, food, housework, travel, and partying. Being an anarchistic place by definition there is no section on hierarchy or power.

These chapters are populated with a swirling cast of painters, models, and writers ranging from the almost famous to the long-forgotten, so the “Dramatis Personae” in the appendix becomes the most valuable part of the book, as one gradually learns to navigate the social networks of 1920s Bohemia. There have been many memoirs and biographies of the people involved, so there is no shortage of brilliant quotes to liven up the proceedings. My favourite one has to be the (unattributed) geometric description of the Bloomsbury set as a circle of friends who lived in squares and loved in triangles.

As additional material to make the sheer visual wealth of Bohemia more palpable, I recommend to consult the book “Charleston: a Bloomsbury house and garden” (Frances Lincoln 2004) as well, which Nicholson wrote together with her father, and which contains many wonderful photos by Alen Macweeney of the country house where Vanessa Bell and various associates lived. Additional visualisation help is provided by the movie Carrington (about the various love triangles involving the painter Dora Carrington and the writer Lytton Strachey), which is now available on DVD.

In all of this, the very endearing Bohemian philosophy of life shines through, which essentially implies that for each individual their art, love, and friendships are infinitely more important than the ten million rules and regulations that Victorian society imposed on its members. Living in a society which in many ways is closer to Bohemia’s jurisdiction than to Victoria’s, we are bound to find the Bohemian rule-breaking and mischief-making amusing, even in instances which contemporaries must have considered truly shocking.

Therefore, the whole makes for a highly entertaining read, but it also provides food for thought and self-questioning. Many of Bohemia’s battles against Victorian norms have been won by now – for instance, women can wear their hair short, and men theirs long without shocking anybody. And yet, people with any kind of creative inclination still face the age-old dilemma whether they can afford to put their art (in the widest sense) first, or whether they have to make bourgeois compromises to ensure they can pay their bills. Today, there isn’t a separate country called Bohemia any more. On the sliding scale between Bohemian and Bourgeois, everybody has to find their own place.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

murder at Burton college

Crime scene -- do not enter, says the ribbon. While it's true we're not allowed to enter, it's not really a crime scene, only a fictional one on a film set. The college isn't called Burton College in real life either, it's Mansfield College on Mansfield road.

What's happening here, I guess, must be some new instalment of the TV series "Lewis" a spin-off from the very popular Inspector Morse series based on Colin Dexter's books. As both series are set in Oxford, one does occasionally bump into a film crew in town. In this case it was very convenient, as the "crime scene" was close to the college entrance, so lots of people could watch the filming from the road. Always fun to watch people work, especially if it's something vaguely creative.

Friday, October 02, 2009

architecture show

Have just joined, and think I quite like the site. One of the perks is that I can create a slide show of my pix and embed it here (I hope):

just one new photo can be uploaded each week, but it will appear in full size ...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

a new ancestor

It's all happening in Ethiopia right now, hominid "Ardi" is being introduced to the world -- follow Scientific American writer Kate Wong on twitter to find out all about it.

here's the advance press info we got from Science (which was embargoed until 48 minutes ago):

In a special issue of Science, an international team of scientists has for the first time thoroughly described Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominid species that lived 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia. This research, in the form of 11 detailed papers and more general summaries, will appear in the journal’s 2 October 2009 issue.

This package of research offers the first comprehensive, peer-reviewed description of the Ardipithecus fossils, which include a partial skeleton of a female, nicknamed “Ardi.”

The last common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees is thought to have lived six or more million years ago. Though Ardipithecus is not itself this last common ancestor, it likely shared many of this ancestor’s characteristics. For comparison, Ardipithecus is more than a million years older than the "Lucy" female partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis. Until the discovery of the new Ardipithecus remains, the fossil record contained scant evidence of other hominids older than Australopithecus.

Through an analysis of the skull, teeth, pelvis, hands, feet and other bones, the researchers have determined that Ardipithecus had a mix of “primitive” traits, shared with its predecessors, the primates of the Miocene epoch, and “derived” traits, which it shares exclusively with later hominids. Because of its antiquity, Ardipithecus takes us closer to the still-elusive last common ancestor. However, many of its traits do not appear in modern-day African apes. One surprising conclusion, therefore, is that it is likely that the African apes have evolved extensively since we shared that last common ancestor, which thus makes living chimpanzees and gorillas poor models for the last common ancestor and for understanding our own evolution since that time.

bee movie

...coming up: