Saturday, December 31, 2022

buds and blossoms

It is getting harder to retain any sense of optimism, but here I'll round up some very tiny personal pleasures and successes from the year that was, just to remind myself that good things still happen sometimes.

In January and February, as my shoulder injury was still limiting the cello playing, I had lots of fun with my tenor sax. (In the course of the year, my shoulder got better, the sax got worse, and the saxophone shop down the road from us closed down, so I very much reverted to string-playing mode.)

In March I signed the contract for a new science book, watch this space!

In May, fleeing the jubilee hysteria, I spent a week in France, first time after 8 years I think, see my flickr album. First thing I missed in the streets was newspaper stalls. And people smoking. Both being replaced by people glued to their phones.

In June, I launched an effort to lose the fear of flats, mainly by learning bits of the fourth cello suite which is in Eb major (3b).

In July, I used up a random bag of seeds flying around and grew six dwarf sunflowers which lit up my windowsill for a long time, see photo below (and more on flickr). And learned some botany - after the first flowers faded, I noticed other buds forming, so cut the faded flowers and got smaller secondary flowers as well. Which kept them going into September.

In August I used the famous 9-Euro ticket to visit 9 cities in 9 days. I also had a ticket in June, when I passed through Germany on the return from France, but then I didn't have much time to use it thoroughly.

Back at Oxford, I had the privilege to meet Caroline the Musical Saw Lady at Elder Stubbs Festival and try her Stradivarius saw. Soon after I found a 26" saw on ebay which works very nicely both for playing and for actual woodwork.

Later in August, I was very surprised to discover an origins story for my Wolff ancestry.

On Sept first, I launched the second season of my blog series Every picture tells a story where I share one (or several) family photo every week.

In late September, I made a surprise discovery that very nearly knocked me off my feet: 160 poems written by my great-grandfather Heinrich the cellist after meeting and falling in love with my great-grandmother. Like more famous writers before him, the budding poet used lots of botanical metaphors, too.

In November, I managed to fix my aunt's old violin which had spent more than half a century in different attics. Turns out I really enjoy playing it too, I wasn't expecting that. Having started the year playing mainly alto recorder and tenor sax, I'm now closing it playing mainly violin and cello. Also, it's handy to be able to switch instruments in response to which strains this old body is still willing to tolerate.

Also in November, when the situation at the bird site got out of hand, I came prepared, as I had already set up a mastodon account back in 2018 (when tumblr banned the infamous female-presenting nipples). I also rejoined tumblr, but that isn't working nearly as well as Mastodon these days.

In December, we had a lovely cold snap and I managed to fit two afternoons of wild skating at Port Meadow.

Professionally, I have managed to publish my complete set of 24 features in Current Biology this year, one in every issue, which is always a very satisfying thought.

Oh, and thanks to a generous Santa, my Lost Cities series is now also taking the shape of a collection of matching books full of old postcards. Will do a separate blog post about these in the new year.

Executive summary: ship still sinking, band still playing.

Previous year reviews (I don't always write one):
2021
2018
2017

Thursday, December 29, 2022

desperately searching Wilhelm

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 17.

When the three children from the bakery in Dörndorf (Silesia) grew up, Hedwig the milk maid didn't think much of her sister Emma, who allegedly had the habit of sneering at Hedwig's "smelly" employments in agriculture. She was very fond of her brother Wilhelm though. He went missing in the last months of the war and Hedwig, then transplanted to west Germany kept looking for him for many years. He never did turn up, and we still don't know what happened to him.

So what we know:

Wilhelm Karl (Willi) Geppert
born 12.11.1916
1934 finishes apprenticeship with master butcher Paul Loge at Heinersdorf: Gesellen-Brief 27.9.1934
Wanderschaft documented until 15.4.1938, mostly working in the region of Kreis Frankenstein, Silesia.
2.3.1945 last post from the front, near Königsberg, East Prussia. Address: FP Amt Heiligenbeil, Braunsberg, Ostpreussen.

As she missed him so much, Hedwig kept lots of photos of him, and he tends to look cute and friendly in these. Here's a selection with a few open questions:

first communion

Wilhelm on the right, no idea who the others are. Maybe he lodged with them during his apprenticeship?

We don't know who his girlfriend was either.

and finally, if anybody recognises this Pension Roseneck, I have no idea where this might be. None of the eponymous guest houses I can find online has anything like the characteristic architectural details around the windows seen here. Photo dates from 1942. Update: It is marked on the back with greetings from Badenweiler, which may be a clue. Badenweiler is a spa town in the Black Forest, but I still can't find Pension Roseneck there.

Should anybody have any answers to some of the many questions I am raising in this series, please leave a comment here (I'll need to vet it, so it may take a few days before it goes public) or contact me at michaelgrr [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia
  5. a very romantic poet
  6. fireman August
  7. 50 hundredweight of coffee
  8. mysterious Minden people
  9. horses for Hedwig
  10. guessing the great-grandmothers
  11. cousin Charlotte
  12. three sisters
  13. travelling saleswoman
  14. family portrait
  15. dancing chemist
  16. games time
  17. desperately searching Wilhelm

I started a twitter thread for season 2 here. However, as the bird site seems to be turning into an evil empire, I have now switched to logging the entries in a similar thread on Mastodon.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries. Alternatively, visit the last instalment and find the numbered list of entries at the bottom.

I'm also adding all photos from this series to my family history album on flickr.

See also my Lost Cities series (which may get an extension at some point).

Friday, December 23, 2022

nanoworld's submarines

Back in the 1990s, when I did research on the molecular machines in the cell and got excited about artificial nanomachines inspired by these, I wrote a whole book about this nature vs technology on the nanoscale thing: Travels to the Nanoworld.

In recent years, I haven't covered this field all that much, as I've move more into ecology/environment direction, but C&I kindly asked me to do a feature on miniature machines pegged to some exciting things that came out of Cornell's labs, so I did. It is out now:

Nano submarines

Chemistry & Industry Volume 86, Issue 12, December 2022, Pages 26-29

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (open access)

Any access problems give me a shout and I can send a PDF file.

A scanning electron microscope image shows a cell-size robotic swimmer that can be powered and steered by ultrasound waves.
Wu Lab, Cornell University/Tao Luo, Xiamen University

Thursday, December 22, 2022

games time

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 16.

It's also the season for board games, so here is Frieda the pianist as a budding granny playing a game with her first three grandchildren and their parents. I think I've seen this game before but can't remember what it's called or how it works.

What interests me more about this photo is the surrounding, with Frieda's piano in the background on the left and her middle daughter's violin on the top of it - although that middle daughter had already married and moved to a different country by that time. It boggles my mind that nobody alive has any memories of this instrument, even though it was always there for all to see. Also on the piano a portrait which I think is of Frieda's father, Heinrich the station master of Minden Stadt. Above the piano on the wall that could be a portrait of a composer (Schumann?).

Around the corner on the wall to the right of the piano, two family portraits. I've identified the one on the left here, and the other one is a portrait of her with Peter the customs officer, possibly taken on the occasion of their engagement. We still have both of these, still in their frames, but I don't have them here, will have to do a separate entry with the entire collection of photos seen around Frieda's flat. Heck, I may even be able to re-unite them with these tasteful antler-lamps. Watch this space.

PS come to think of it, I did a re-enactment of the violin lying on the piano, when both crossed paths again in Düsseldorf this June:

Update 25.12.2022 - I found a photo I took of the missing photo, still in the same frame, and positioned on the piano:

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia
  5. a very romantic poet
  6. fireman August
  7. 50 hundredweight of coffee
  8. mysterious Minden people
  9. horses for Hedwig
  10. guessing the great-grandmothers
  11. cousin Charlotte
  12. three sisters
  13. travelling saleswoman
  14. family portrait
  15. dancing chemist
  16. games time

I started a twitter thread for season 2 here. However, as the bird site seems to be turning into an evil empire, I have now switched to logging the entries in a similar thread on Mastodon.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries. Alternatively, visit the last instalment and find the numbered list of entries at the bottom.

I'm also adding all photos from this series to my family history album on flickr.

See also my Lost Cities series (which may get an extension at some point).

Monday, December 19, 2022

fighting invaders

The last feature of the year is about invasive species, one of the key causes of biodiversity loss, which has been the focus of the COP15 summit at Montreal that ends this week.

We, Homo sapiens, are of course the most invasive species of all, and most of the others have invaded in our footsteps. They often travel as stowaways, such as rodents on ships, but in some cases have also been spread intentionally by people wanting to "enrich" their local flora or fauna.

For the feature I have rounded up some examples of such accidental or stupid invasions, along with new ways developed to fight back against harmful invasions.

How to stop species invasions

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 24, 19. December 2022, Pages R1325-R1328

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

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

As the bird site seems to be going the way of MySpace, I will start a Mastodon thread in the new year, just couldn't be bothered to redo all the copy-pasting for the features already out this year.

The red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) native to the Bering Sea and Alaska was introduced to the Barents Sea by the Soviet Union and is now spreading from there into the North Sea. (Photo: David Marks/Pixabay.)

Thursday, December 15, 2022

dancing chemist

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 15.

I hear it's party season out there (although I'm more in hibernation mode myself), so let's have some party pics. Richard the young chemist managed to survive WW2 guarding some telegraph station near the arctic circle without getting promoted or noted in any form, which is why after the war he got very swiftly got back into teaching and soon became headteacher of the Göttenbach-Gymnasium in Idar-Oberstein (a Gymnasium is a selective secondary school, a bit like grammar schools in the UK). He started there as acting headteacher in 1950, and was promoted to the proper rank of Oberstudiendirektor in 1952.

There are obviously all kinds of photos of him at work and with the teaching staff, but let's have some party pics which I found floating around randomly, so I have no clue what year they were taken, what the party was about, and who the other people were. All hints welcome.

and another one, I think I found both in the same box of random stuff:

NB his other subjects were maths and physics, I just kept the chemist of the season 1 episode because he's wearing a lab coat in these photos.

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia
  5. a very romantic poet
  6. fireman August
  7. 50 hundredweight of coffee
  8. mysterious Minden people
  9. horses for Hedwig
  10. guessing the great-grandmothers
  11. cousin Charlotte
  12. three sisters
  13. travelling saleswoman
  14. family portrait
  15. dancing chemist

The twitter thread for season 2 is here.

As the bird site seems to be going the way of MySpace, I have built a similar thread on Mastodon, which is now up to date.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries. Alternatively, visit the last instalment and find the numbered list of entries at the bottom.

I'm also adding all photos from this series to my family history album on flickr.

See also my Lost Cities series (which may get an extension at some point).

Monday, December 12, 2022

a violin gone missing

Some thoughts on

Gone: A girl, a violin, a life unstrung

Min Kym

Viking 2017

I still remember reading the news when Min Kym’s Stradivarius violin was stolen from near her table in a Pret a Manger outside Euston Station in London. (On our way to St. Pancras we usually have coffee at a Pret a couple of hundred metres earlier, but I think on one or two occasions I may have used the same one.) So it felt a bit weird buying a memoir pegged to that story, but then again, it crossed my path when I had just restored a neglected family fiddle, so was on a violin vibe anyway and keen to read the violinist’s account of her relation with her instrument.

As the guardian of several old string instruments that are a bit less valuable than virtually all of those mentioned in the book, I am in two minds about the story of the author and her violin. I can relate to the emotional bond she describes, especially to the instruments that have a long and well-documented history, as the Strads usually have (but some of my more modest instruments also have to a certain extent).

But then the value thing comes in and disturbs the romantic story of emotional connection – Kym doesn’t appear to consider any instruments worth playing if they have fewer than six figures on the price tag. After her beloved Strad was stolen, she duly got the megabuck (literally) payout from the insurance, but by the time the stolen instrument was recovered, the money had dispersed this way and that, as life happened and she was unable to continue her glamorous solo career without the one instrument that meant everything to her. So she wasn’t able to pay back the insurance and thus couldn’t get the instrument back.

Which in a way reflects the typical situation that even celebrated soloists find themselves in these days – the prices of these instruments are so astronomical that no amount of gigging and recording will pay for them. If they’re lucky they can find investors who will buy the instruments and let the musicians play them. This can be a win-win, as appearances with a top player will also boost the value of the instrument and thus the wealth of the investor.

This is tragic in a way, but it was to be expected if you have a very limited resource in a competitive capitalist environment. Arguably, by hyping the importance of playing only the best 17th/18th century instruments and nothing else the stars of classical music have dug this hole for themselves. Had they kept quieter about it, and from time to time agreed to play on instruments built by mere mortals, they might still be able to afford the top of the range.

Obviously, there is a similar race going on for the quality of the performers themselves – in a global competitive environment, where you can easily compare recordings made by everybody in the field, the top edge of the triangle gets higher and sharper, but that doesn’t help the rest of us, who are playing our ordinary instruments as best we can near the bottom of the pile.

Both of these developments are the opposite of what we are trying to do in folk music, encouraging everybody to join the fun, with whatever instrument they can find on a flea market. Personally, I am convinced that I am learning more about music (including the classical repertoire as well as folk) by trying to play it myself than by listening to some superstar having fun with their Strad.

So I’m afraid my empathy doesn’t go up in line with the price tag – if somebody has their much-loved folk fiddle stolen I can appreciate that it means as much to them as the Strad meant to Kym, even if there are five orders of magnitude between the market prices of the instruments. Although I’ll also continue to read stories of Stradivarius instruments (such as the six collected in this book I reviewed earlier) as tales from an alien civilisation.

The edition I found at a charity shop - appears to be a first edition and it is signed, so maybe it could become valuable too - if and when the author's solo career recovers. The blue dust jacket has a violin-shaped hole revealing the black of the hardcover binding underneath, which is kind of clever alluding to the dark hole in the author's life as well as perhaps the process of carving the instruments out of trees?

See also my twitter thread listing books I read in 2022. In the new year, the thread will be on Mastodon instead.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

string theory

Plague Year(s) Bach Project, update plus violin news

Slow progress - have now re-memorised the minuet in D minor to complete movement 2.5, one of the more difficult movements in the first three suites. It still needs sorting out with the metronome. Also, getting the hang of the bourrees in Eb minor, with half of the first (much longer) bourree memorised and the rest of it beginning to make some kind of sense when I play it.

Now looking forward to a few quiet weeks to to advance a bit more.

In other string-playing news, I managed to restore my aunt's violin, which hadn't seen the light of day in more than half a century, to a playable condition, and actually quite enjoy playing it. Waking up an instrument neglected for decades, it would be rude not to play it, right?

Although the fingering on the violin is different from the cello, and the hand is the wrong way round, I found to my surprise that the automatic playing transfers quite quickly. By this I mean that I think of a sound and the fingers will find it - John Holt explained it nicely: when you whistle a tune you don't plan what your tongue and cheeks and lungs are doing either. Playing the violin in the afternoon and the cello in the evening, I have one or two violin related errors when I pick up the cello (ie putting down the 3rd finger where I should use the 4th), so I guess it is important to practice both to make sure the cello code doesn't get overwritten with violin code (that's my string theory at least). But otherwise all good.

So far, I'm only playing folk tunes that I know by heart (eg those from the Oxford Slow Session), and they do tend to come out ok once I figured out which note to start on. Here is a video recorded one month into the fiddle-playing experience - I picked a slow tune, Inisheer, to demonstrate the sound of the instrument, which I think is actually improving as it wakes up from its long slumber, and as we are learning each other's ways. Playing these folk tunes also made me realise to what extent they are written to fit into first position on the fiddle - I've effortlessly played a few that I still find awkward on the flute. Oh, and we made our debut appearance at the Slow Session last Sunday.

Heinrich the cello and Christa the violin. Come to think of it, their human namesakes and previous owners may or may not have met in Idar Oberstein in the 1950s. It may be too late to find out if they did. The attic years of both instruments likely started within 6 months of each other, the cello's after Heinrich's widow died in October 1961, and the violin's after Frieda the pianist died in April 1962 (until then the violin had resided on the top of her piano). Oh, and Frieda's piano also went into storage at that point, but it was the first of the three instruments to see daylight again, at the end of 1968.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

family portrait

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 14.

Writing the entries about the family of baker Adam Eberle in Lorsch in the first series, I thought that I didn't have a photo with all four children. Well I was mistaken, I do have at least a photo of a family portrait (not sure where the original is):

The boy is Peter, the youngest child. He was born in 1900, and his sisters in 1893 (Anna), 1895 (Babette) and 1897 (Dina). My guess would be that the photo may date from 1909/10.

Their mother is Anna Barbara Schütz, born 1860 in Nieder-Liebersbach. She was Adam's first cousin, his mother was her father's sister. So they only have three pairs of grandparents between them. All three families (Schütz, Schmidt, Eberle; further back: Treusch, Röder, Quick, Bangert, Kadel etc.) have been settled in the Odenwald region since the late 17th century, at which time inward migration from Switzerland, Thuringia, and elsewhere helped to revive the Odenwald villages depopulated by the 30-Years War (for details, see the update under this entry in the first series).

For easier comparison, I'll throw in the earlier photo with their house, which I shared before:

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia
  5. a very romantic poet
  6. fireman August
  7. 50 hundredweight of coffee
  8. mysterious Minden people
  9. horses for Hedwig
  10. guessing the great-grandmothers
  11. cousin Charlotte
  12. three sisters
  13. travelling saleswoman
  14. family portrait

The twitter thread for season 2 is here.

As the bird site seems to be going the way of MySpace, I have built a similar thread on Mastodon, which is now up to date.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries. Alternatively, visit the last instalment and find the numbered list of entries at the bottom.

I'm also adding all photos from this series to my family history album on flickr.

See also my Lost Cities series (which may get an extension at some point).

Monday, December 05, 2022

soundscape evolution

Soundscape ecology is beginning to get more attention these days, but what about soundscape evolution? It is intriguing to think that all the biological sounds we associate with life going on around us only evolved within the last half-billion years. After all, the microbes that dominated our planet for most of its lifetime have no way of producing sound.

The origins of biological sound production, first pinned to the rise of grasshoppers some 250 million years ago, are moving back in time, however, as more and more living species are being recorded as sound producers. A recent study suggests that the common ancestor of all terrestrial tetrapods, that fish that started to walk on land some 400 million years ago, was already vocal.

Inspired by this finding, I had a look at the evolution of our soundscape for my latest feature which is out now:

When animals learned to speak

Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 23, 5. December 2022, Pages R1287-R1289

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

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

See also my twitter thread with all this year's CB features.

As the bird site seems to be going the way of MySpace, I will start a Mastodon thread in the new year, just couldn't be bothered to redo all the copy-pasting for the 21 features already out this year.

Hatchlings of aquatic turtles face danger as they emerge from underground nests and move to their watery habitat. Several studies now suggest they may be using acoustic communication to coordinate their emergence and thus improve the survival chance for each individual. (Photo: Omar Torrico/WCS.)

Thursday, December 01, 2022

travelling saleswoman

Every picture tells a story, season 2, picture 13.

After Julius the shopkeeper and later textile businessman had to leave Königsberg he settled in Bad Nauheim and tried to start a new textile business from there based on his address book if not much else. From November 1945 he and Helene (and whatever other family members washed up) lived in a single room in Frankfurter Str. 12, an art nouveau villa which the family later bought, and which you can see here.

Julius died in 1950, aged only 66, which was possibly related to the tropical disease he caught as a young man in Africa. Julius had bullied his younger daughter Esther into studying economics against her wishes. She therefore sported the title of a Diplomkaufmann, which together with her last name of Düsselmann made for a lot of manliness on this woman's business card. Working with Otto Hummel first at Königsberg and then at Reichsuniversität Posen (Poznan), she had even prepared a doctoral thesis about the eastern European trade which became pointless after the war, had worked at Frankfurt with Ludwig Erhard between 1945 and 1950, and then after Julius' death felt obliged to keep his business alive. This involved her driving around as her own travelling saleswoman, for which purpose she got a car, namely a Fiat produced in Germany by NSU, so it was known as an NSU-Fiat. At this point, nobody else in the family had a car (people were still civilised and lived in cities and didn't need one!), so it made a big impression on her teenage nephew, and there are a few photos of her with the NSU-Fiat:

I love this one which kind of reflects her imposing nature.

I have no idea who her fellow travellers may have been.

Could be her sister Ruth in the passenger seat not sure.

The closest match for the car I could find online is this:

I gather it could be a Fiat topolino 500C Belvedere, but have no strong opinion on this.

Esther's saleswoman life continued until 1960. Then, as compensation payments for the lost factory in Königsberg enabled the family to buy the house, she gave up the textile business and ran a bed and breakfast for spa visitors.

Navigation tools:

Season 2 so far:

  1. could be a cousin
  2. two weddings in Silesia
  3. off to Canada
  4. off to Australia
  5. a very romantic poet
  6. fireman August
  7. 50 hundredweight of coffee
  8. mysterious Minden people
  9. horses for Hedwig
  10. guessing the great-grandmothers
  11. cousin Charlotte
  12. three sisters
  13. travelling saleswoman

The twitter thread for season 2 is here.

As the bird site seems to be going the way of MySpace, I have built a similar thread on Mastodon, which is now up to date.

The twitter thread for season 1 is still here. It only loads 30 tweets at first, so you have to click "show more" a couple of times to get all 40 entries. Alternatively, visit the last instalment and find the numbered list of entries at the bottom.

I'm also adding all photos from this series to my family history album on flickr.

See also my Lost Cities series (which may get an extension at some point).