Friday, April 30, 2010

modern architecture at Cologne

... moving up the Rhine to Cologne, where there is also an impressive new development lining a former harbour. Three "Kranhaus" blocks, with lift shafts dangling down from an impossibly weightless "crane" dominate the scene, though some of the other buildings are interesting as well, and a few real cranes have been left in place as reminders of the history of the place.

When I visited last year, all three Kranhaus blocks were still unfinished and fenced in. Now the southernmost one at least appears to be inhabited and is freely accessible.

Here are the three crane houses in context (finished one at the front, the least advanced at the back):

The view from below:

... and the elevator shaft from the side:

... ditto, at ground level:

Coming from the cathedral / main station, these are just a half hour walk along the river bank upstream (i.e. south). (Which reminds me, I should mention that unlike in some cities I could think of, one can actually walk along the river for miles and miles, the promenade is just spectacular.) Definitely worth the trip.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

the reality hidden behind Tintin

Review of:

Tintin and the secret of literature
Tom McCarthy
Granta 2006

Many years ago, I started my writing career at the school magazine with a series of articles about comics (mostly of the French variety), covering Asterix and Lucky Luke in the first two instalments, before moving on to a German cartoonist. I meant to write an article about Tintin as well, but never got round to doing it, partly because I felt there were hidden layers of meaning that I didn’t really understand, and at the time I didn’t have access to secondary literature about Tintin (and the world-wide web hadn’t been invented yet).

Now, thirty years later, thanks to Tom McCarthy’s book, I finally gained admission to the hidden parts of the Tintin universe, which (not surprisingly) is in large parts inspired by the family history of its creator, Hergé. Characters like the Dupond/t (Thom(p)son) twins and Tchang are modelled on real life – Hergé’s father and uncle were twins and wore bowler hats, and the real life Tchang became Hergé’s lifelong friend. Prof. Tournesol (Calculus) is widely recognised as a caricature of the scientist/explorer Auguste Piccard.

But beyond the fairly trivial level of copying caricatures of real people into his fiction, deeper issues of Hergé’s life story provide recurring themes for his work, including authenticity versus fakeness, coded and decoded messages, denial of inherited status, stowaways and intruders, and being caught out by rapid regime change, as McCarthy competently explains.

Hergé started his career with a dangerous level of political naïveté, simply mirroring prevailing rightwing prejudice in his early works. Racism allegations against Tintin au Congo are provoking debate and calls for censorship to this day. His lucky break came in 1934 when he met the Chinese student Tchang Tchong Jen, who helped him with details for the fifth Tintin book, Le lotus bleu. From that point onwards, his world view became much more sophisticated and balanced, and he went on to create some of the undisputed masterworks of the French “ligne claire” tradition of comic books.

Some of the Tintin books, like Le lotus bleu, are instantly recognisable as perfect works of comic art. With others, like Les bijoux de la Castafiore, I initially had the impression that they were “fillers” produced at times when Hergé ran out of inspiration. Surprisingly, the Castafiore volume is among those about which McCarthy finds the most interesting things to say, harking back to an obscure novella by Balzac that I was completely unaware of, and unravelling multiple layers of philosophy hidden underneath a seemingly trivial and uneventful story. I’ll definitely have to read that one again, or ideally, the whole set of 24 books (I left most of them behind when I left home).

The Tintin universe is a mixture of (caricatured) real world places and events on one hand, and some completely imaginary material on the other. McCarthy draws on previous research from other authors uncovering the real underlying the imaginary, and then tries to construct an argument in favour of Tintin as literature, based on this and the big philosophical questions it addresses. As the ever growing book series “… and philosophy” shows, there seems to be a readership for the philosophical analysis of popular culture.

Personally, I think the reality check is more important than the philosophy link. As almost anybody can dream up imaginary characters in imaginary worlds and let them muse about philosophical questions, I feel that the work owes its depth to its roots in the real world, many of which are so artfully concealed that it takes an expert guide like McCarthy to point them out to us lay readers. Reading the books all those years ago, I could only intuitively sense that there was a complex reality hidden behind the simple line drawings.

PS I prepared this review earlier this week, but now seems a good time to post it as I've just come back from Belgium. Saw Within Temptation in Antwerp (review of this to follow) and of course lots of Tintin merchandise in Brussels, below an example of a modest shopwindow display:

And this is part of a mural that most Eurostar passengers will have seen, it's on the wall you walk towards when you come out of the Eurostar arrivals area and go towards the main station concourse:

PS The book is due to come out as paperback edition in March 2011:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

breakthrough in Antarctica?

It's always dangerous to announce things that are just around the corner in publications, as they tend to change their minds and make the would-be prophet look silly. This happened to me with a few things, including the exploration of the sub-glacial lake Vostok in Antarctica. If memory serves, I already announced that event in my book Life on the Edge in 1998, and it still hasn't happened.

Mind you, there were very good reasons not to proceed with this project too hastily, as researchers are hoping to find a unique biotope down there and don't want to destroy it by connecting it with the outside world.

Now, after lots of thinking about the contamination risks and developing new methods to avoid it, Russian researchers at Vostok station say they are ready to proceed to the lake surface in the next Antarctic summer, 2010-11. I wrote a news feature about the drilling project and what it might discover, which is out in this week's issue of Current Biology:

Final drive for Antarctic breakthrough
Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 8, R337-R338, 27 April 2010

Abstract and restricted access to PDF file

PS (Feb 2011) I hear that the drilling didn't make it to the surface of Lake Vostok this season, the quest will continue next year ...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

nanochemistry reviewed

I am somewhat allergic to pointless neologisms hitching "nano" to things that happen at the nanoscale by default, such as chemistry, or catalysis. Undeterred by my criticism, chemist Geoffrey Ozin keeps publishing books about "nanochemistry", and I have reviewed his latest effort:

Concepts of Nanochemistry
Ludovico Cademartiri and Geoffrey Ozin
Wiley-VCH 2009; ISBN 978-3-527-32597-9

in this week's issue of Chemistry & Industry, issue 8, page 29. The title apart, I did find it quite readable and even engaging. A snippet:

The style is also very accessible and almost colloquial. Youthful enthusiasm for the subject matter expresses itself in so many exclamation marks that I got the impression someone must have edited out the OMGs and LOLs. But if it helps to keep the students awake, that’s all good.

Monday, April 26, 2010


... some snaps from Düsseldorf. First the mythical water creatures known as Flossies, which apparently emerge from the river Rhine and climb up otherwise unremarkable buildings:

A building by the waterside in the former harbour area, obviously inspired by the former use of the area:

... and going inland, a 3D work of art on a wall near the station of D-Bilk:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

noughties book

I'm still not finished with the process of getting my self-published collection of book reviews, "The noughties brought to book" listed on amazon (forgot to include a copyright page and had to amend and re-publish), which means that so far you can only order it from Lulu have just emailed me a coupon for free shipping, so anybody in the US can get the book cheaper if ordering before May 5th (e.g. using the link below) and using the code: FREEMAILUK305

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Terms and conditions:

Use coupon code FREEMAILUK305 at checkout and receive £2.99 towards your final shipping cost. This amount is the US mail cost for a single book order. Please note: there will be a shipping total listed on your order receipt. This coupon code will reduce your final order total by £2.99, which is the US mail cost for a single book. Purchase must be 3rd party content. Self-purchases of your own content are not eligible. Discount cannot be used to pay for, nor shall be applied to applicable taxes or shipping and handling charges. Shipping destination must be a valid US address. Promotional codes cannot be applied to any previous order. No exchanges or substitutions allowed. Only one valid promotional code may be used per account. Coupon cannot be used in combination with other coupon codes. Offer expires on 5/5/10 at 11:59 PM. reserves the right to change or revoke this offer at anytime. Void where prohibited.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pension Düsselmann, Bad Nauheim

During my recent trip to Germany, I visited the spa town of Bad Nauheim, where my great-aunt and great-grandmother used to live, for the first time in nearly 30 years. My great-aunt, Esther Düsselmann, used to have a bed & breakfast which around 1973 looked like this: On my visit I was pleased to find out that the people who bought the house in the 1980s have renovated it very nicely and are still using it (as offices): Only the garden looks as messy as ever, so I had to take the picture from the side, as the house is barely visible from the front. Bad Nauheim is of course famous for the early 20th century spa buildings: ... and for the fact that Elvis resided there during his military service in nearby Friedberg: PS More about the Düsselmann family is to be found in this blog entry and in the links therein.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

recycle your P

scientists at Arizona State University are launching the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative today (details of launch event). The initiative is led by ASU ecologist James Elser, sustainability expert Daniel Childers, and business professor Mark Edwards. They highlight the fact that the current use of phosphorus is highly unsustainable, and must be changed urgently.

Phosphate minerals are mined mainly in five countries, and 90% of the production goes into fertilisers, meaning that if "peak phosphorus" comes to pass, which will likely happen around the middle of this century, it will immediately hit global food production.

So recycling of phosphate-rich waste, e.g. sewage should become a priority ...

More on this later.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Epigenetik, April, Krebsgenom

the monthly round-up of German pieces includes the epigenetic roots of multiple sclerosis (also covered in a recent feature in Oxford Today, see here), cancer genomes, and two (hopefully) funny pieces:

Ausgeforscht: Ein Molekül namens Dornröschen
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 58, 418

Red-Queen-Paradox im Bildungswesen: Studenten zahlen statt zu studieren
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 58, 443

Wird Multiple Sklerose epigenetisch vererbt?
Spektrum der Wissenschaft April 2010, S. 21-23

Das Krebsgenom: Invasives Wachstum
Trillium Report 8 (1), S. 40-41

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

paris by day

This time, we only spent a night and half a day at Paris, so the photo yield is somewhat limited, but here are a few day-time snaps.

We explored the covered-up part of the Canal St Martin down to Bastille place, and discovered this exotic-looking place:

I always check the fountain next to the Beaubourg, with the sculptures by Niki de St Phalle but we were out of luck, as the fountains weren't on:

A new discovery was this DNA-like (?) sculpture in the Tuileries, which stands slightly bent, so I have one photo where the sculpture is straight but the ground is sloping, and this one where the ground is straight but the sculpture threatens to fall over:

Pix from various stops in Germany to follow ...

Monday, April 19, 2010

paris by night

I have lots of photos to sort out from my trip, here's a couple of shots of paris by night to start with:

In case it isn't obvious, the second photo shows a "Vélib'" bike rental station. Each bike dock has a green diode when the bike is there and ready to use (I assume), so at night, when all the bikes are there, the whole row gets this nice green glow reflected in the wire baskets. By day, the bikes get used a lot, one sees them whizzing about everywhere.

I've also just uploaded a new photo to fotocommunity.

wave power rules in Scotland

An assorted collection of wave and tidal power devices is to be deployed off the coasts of Scotland within the next ten years, demonstrating that there is a choice of technologies available to harness marine energy, but also that we aren't quite sure yet which of these technologies is going to be the most efficient one in practice.

I wrote a news feature about this for Current Biology, which came out last week while I was away and offline:

Wave power set to roll

Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 7, R299-R300, 13 April 2010

FREE access to full text and pdf file

Sunday, April 18, 2010

adventure travel

getting back from Germany yesterday was a bit of an adventure, but we made it! That's me, two kids, seven items of luggage including a very large African drum, and all that on trains overcrowded with stranded air passengers. At one point our train to Brussels was 100 minutes late:

but at the end of the day, and after some further struggles with the usual "lines closed due to scheduled engineering work" that hits UK rail services every weekend, we came home just one hour later than anticipated. Feels like a real achievement, given that this has probably been the worst travel chaos to hit Europe in living memory.

Following the news I was also intrigued re. how many people use pointless short-haul flights in a country that has an excellent network of intercity trains with services every hour and guaranteed connections on the opposite side of the same platform. Entire football teams, I learned this weekend, routinely fly to their away matches, even if the trip is only a couple of hours by train. Serves them right, now they have to share overcrowded trains with their drunken fans.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Henrich Tüselmann

Newly discovered documents show that the earliest known ancestor of the Düsselmann family (whose numerous descendants I've listed here) called himself Henrich Tüselmann (Tusselmann), and he was a miller at Dahlhausen, which is now a part of Bochum. He died 1770 at the age of 68. His first children appear to have been born at Strünkede, which today is part of Herne, and just a few kilometers north of Dahlhausen. In 1730 he married Anna Elisabeth Siepmanns (more Siepmann history). They had 10 sons (including my ancestor Georg Wilhelm Tusselmann / Düsselmann) and 3 daughters. She died 1788 aged 82. I was shocked to see the spelling with a T at the beginning - I had never even considered looking for that. It looks like there are 28 phonebook entries for Tüsselmann across Germany, most of them just a bit southwest of Bochum, in the districts of Mettmann and Wuppertal. For Tüselmann (only one s) there are even more (50), and the highest concentration of Tüselmann people is in Bochum and in the neighbouring Ennepe-Ruhr-district. PS the Düsselmanns are of course linked to the de la Strada family, and I am intrigued to see that my blog entry on the Stradas appears to attract quite a few readers via google searches. PPS Potential parents for Henrich Tüselman are Joh. Tusellman and Maria Arndts, who got married 30.11.1696 at Herne.

Friday, April 02, 2010

the big issue

The current issue of the magazine The Big Issue (that's the one sold by homeless people on street corners) has a cover story on "Shakira - Activist. Philanthropist. Pop goddess." Old photos, but a new interview. A lot about her education work, some hints re the forthcoming album in Spanish (not really thrilled to hear that she's writing material in English for that one, in my humble opinion the Spanish stuff is still better!) and the next tour, but no firm dates.

Anyhow. Another cover for the collection:

Thursday, April 01, 2010

peeling patterns

The new banner picture fits my occasional series "Things I like the look/design of," as I like the patterns and textures revealed when paint, plaster, or other surface coatings come off. As for instance, on the walls of houses in Venice, where the water eats away all attempts at covering up the bricks.

In this case it's from a tree though - I think it's a plane, and I think it shed its bark naturally. But no guarantee, as I don't know much about biology above the cellular level ...