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

Update 5.4.2022: In the context of Putin's war in Ukraine, I came across this interesting feature on the current status of Kaliningrad in the scheme of Eastern European power play (published Oct. 2021).

#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

FREE access to full text and PDF download

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

Update 18.8.2022: Thanks to the 9-Euro-ticket, I finally got round to visiting Rheydt. The Hauptbahnhof was a bit of a disappointment: it was walled off on the city side due to a major building project happening outside (not to improve the station I don't think), and I had to find my way the long way round following the roads. A few nice old buildings survive from my grandmother's school days though, see my flickr pics. On the way back I took the local bus to Mönchengladbach Hbf, to see how the two connect.


The protestant main church and the market square. I should revisit on a market day one day, that must look nice. Also need to bring a map and find the address where the family lived.

UPDATE 26.11.2022: Just discovered on Flickr an album with the Festschrift on the centenary of Rheydt becoming a city, from 1956. A lot about the textile industry in there, and a one-page ad for C. Brühl, here.

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

following Nansen's drift

The polar research vessel Polarstern recently returned from a year-long expedition into the Arctic, essentially retracing the voyage of Fridtjof Nansen with the Fram in the 19th century. The comparison of observations and measurements made by both expeditions is troubling. What was a slowly drifting but largely solid ice cap in the 19th century is now turning into a puddle.

I've rounded up Fram, Polarstern and some other Arctic news in my latest feature which is out now:

Arctic meltdown

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 23, 07 December 2020, Pages R1391-R1393

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Researchers onboard RV Polarstern experienced a “dying Arctic” with temperatures 10 degrees warmer than what Fridtjof Nansen recorded 125 years earlier. (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute/Stefanie Arndt (CC-BY 4.0).)

In other news, the last feature of the year is about Covid-19 genomics, due out December 21, but you can read a preprint here (open access).

PS only after my feature came out I discovered that the expedition leader, Markus Rex, has published a book about the expedition, which has turned up in the Spiegel bestsellers chart this month:

Saturday, December 05, 2020

finding Minden

In the course of my project concerning Heinrich the cello (and Frieda the piano) it dawned on me that in the 1960s, my family not only lost the musical tradition, but also the habit of living in civilised cities (as opposed to in the middle of a field which is where I grew up).

Having obsessed about Elberfeld and Strasbourg already, I have now decided to make this a series, called #lostcities and using period postcards for illustration. I’ll pick a few nice examples out of the around 20 places where the three generations before me (i.e. 14 people with their offspring) lived, basically, the places where I wouldn’t mind moving in myself.

Minden in 1907. The Fishers' district and the canal crossing are to the right of this frame.

Number 3 in the series is Minden, where my grandmother Frieda, the pianist, grew up. Her mother died relatively young but her father stayed in Minden half a century, from his marriage to his death, so this may be a record for the longest stay in the same town in this generation of otherwise quite mobile people.

There is a geography board game using the tag line “Finden Sie Minden?” (Can you find Minden?) which seems to suggest that it is so obscure many people don’t know where to find it. In fact, the reason why it remained small when other cities grew in the 19th century is linked to its special location. Let me explain.

Minden is located on the river Weser just downstream of where it cuts through a mountain range, so it’s presiding over the most convenient place to travel North-South without having to cross those mountains. Accordingly it has always been militarised and fortified, and the city walls strangled its growth in the 19th century when other cities that had been less significant, started to industrialise and grow rapidly, including eg Elberfeld. The walls only came down in 1879, by which time industrialists had set up their industries elsewhere.

On the other hand, this location also made Minden a transport hub. One of the earliest long-distance railway lines in Germany connected Cologne with Minden, and the town also had early rail links to Berlin and Hannover, so it was an important rail hub in the 19th century and it still is, to an extent There are still direct trains running Cologne to Minden, and even some ICE trains stop there. They are a bit hard to find but I checked and, for instance, on Monday at 23:47h you can catch ICE102 from Minden to Hannover.

It is also a central crossing of water ways, as the major East-West canal (Mittellandkanal) crosses the river Weser just to the North of the city. The canal stretch connecting the rivers Ems and Weser as well as the spectacular river crossing were completed in 1915. At that time, Frieda and her parents lived just a short walk away from the canal bridge, in the picturesque fisher’s quarter (Fischerstadt) in the corner between the former city wall and the river bank. Frieda’s parents stayed there for the rest of their lives and looking at the old photos I can see the attraction (although Minden fails my official residence criteria for not having a university).

Update 16.10.2021: In September 2021, I revisited Minden the first time after 35 years. New blog entry here, lots of photos on flickr.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

movements in tiers

Nine months into the plague year Bach project, I have stuck with the plan of studying one movement each month, but I have also accumulated a backlog of movements that I haven't quite managed to memorise. Therefore, I'll take the tenth month to fix some of the gaps before I move on with the front half of the third suite. Specifically, reorganising my revision list by the degree of success so far, I get three tiers (reminds me of something?!):

1) movements memorised in their entirety
1.4 Sarabande
1.5 Minuet I&II
1.6 Gigue

2) movements memorised in a significant part
1.3 Courante (2/3)
3.4 Sarabande (1/3)
3.5 Bourree I&II (1/2)
3.6. Gigue (2/3)

3) movements I've put aside for now
1.1. Prelude
1.2 Allemande

Re the movements and fractions of movements listed as "memorised": these I play at least once a week to check I still have them in my head and fix little problems here and there.

So for this month the main goal will be to shift some of the movements from tier 2 to tier 1. Starting with the bourrees, which should be no problem, and then I may also have time to complete the Gigue in C, which is great fun but quite long.

The Sarabande in C, last month's movement, may be hard to shift - while it is very short, there are far too many chords and shifts in this one. Took me all of November to memorise the first repeat, all of 8 bars long. Not a good sign. It also caused trouble with the Sarabande in G, as it uses some of the same chords in different sequence, so easy to get confused or to overwrite the memory of the first sarabande while trying to memorise the new one.

A freshly restored Heinrich in Regensburg, back in 1991.

PS To get the hang of the second bourree, I've been revisiting Inbal Segev's performance of the bourrees, which even has a christmas tree in it: