Bleg: Mein Irernachweis, or A Little Bit of Niall of the Nine Hostages in Me

Not a week goes by when a German reader doesn't ask: Werte Volksgenosse! How can I trust the things you say on this blog without knowing your precise racial heritage?

It's a fair question, so I had 23andme perform a complete genetic profile of me.  I found out lots of fascinating things: I have no alcohol flush response, can taste bitterness, am likely to go bald (already have), have 'wet' earwax, above average risks for thrombosis and gallstones, below average risk for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and my ancestry is >99% European.

The most interesting result, though, was my father's haplogroup, which 23andme explains as follows:

Haplogroup R1b1b2a1a2f2

R1b1b2a1a2f2 reaches its peak in Ireland, where the vast majority of men carry Y-chromosomes belonging to the haplogroup. Researchers have recently discovered that a large subset of men assigned to the haplogroup may be direct male descendants of an Irish king who ruled during the 4th and early 5th centuries. According to Irish history, a king named Niall of the Nine Hostages established the Ui Neill dynasty that ruled the island country for the next millennium.

Northwestern Ireland is said to have been the core of Niall's kingdom; and that is exactly where men bearing the genetic signature associated with him are most common. About 17% of men in northwestern Ireland have Y-chromosomes that are exact matches to the signature, and another few percent vary from it only slightly. In New York City, a magnet for Irish immigrants during the 19th and early 20th century, 2% of men have Y-chromosomes matching the Ui Neill signature. Genetic analysis suggests that all these men share a common ancestor who lived about 1,700 years ago. Among men living in northwestern Ireland today that date is closer to 1,000 years ago. Those dates neatly bracket the era when Niall is supposed to have reigned.

Outside Ireland, R1b1b2a1a2f2 is relatively common only along the west coast of Britain.

Now, my father's last name was Hammel, and his father's last name was Hammel, etc. Family lore, which as we all know is notoriously unreliable, has our forebears coming to America as Hessian mercenaries in the late 1800s. The Hessians were hired by the British to fight the Americans, but the Americans offered the mercenaries land if they switched sides, and apparently about 5,000 of the Hessians ended up settling in the United States.

I have no idea whether there's anything to this, but it does seem a bit odd that an American family with a last name Hammel should have a haplogroup that's so closely tied to Ireland. Does anyone have any informed guess as to how this might have occurred?

American Paranoia

In a comment to the gun post, Martin observes:

In the US guns seem to be ubiquitous and that creates a different mind-set in the people. Guns are there because there is a perceived problem that can be solved with them. Also, I got the impression that many believe that THEY are out there to get you. And you always have to be prepared for the time when THEY come!

And we [Germans] usually do not believe that THEY are out there to get you.

And I would really appreciate if you keep THEM. We do not need THEM here.

This reminded me of point no. 7 from Post Masculine's 10 Things Most Americans Don't Know about America, 'We're Paranoid':

Not only are we emotionally insecure as a culture, but I’ve come to realize how paranoid we are about our physical security. You don’t have to watch Fox News or CNN for more than 10 minutes to hear about how our drinking water is going to kill us, our neighbor is going to rape our children, some terrorist in Yemen is going to kill us because we didn’t torture him, Mexicans are going to kill us, or some virus from a bird is going to kill us. There’s a reason we have more guns than people.

In the US, security trumps everything, even liberty. We’re paranoid.

I’ve probably been to 10 countries now that friends and family back home told me explicitly not to go because someone was going to kill me, kidnap me, stab me, rob me, rape me, sell me into sex trade, give me HIV, or whatever else. None of that has happened. I’ve never been robbed and I’ve walked through some of the shittiest parts of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

In fact, the experience has been the opposite. In countries like Russia, Colombia or Guatemala, people were so friendly it actually scared me. Some stranger in a bar would invite me to his house for a bar-b-que with his family, a random person on the street would offer to show me around and give me directions to a store I was trying to find. My American instincts were always that, “Wait, this guy is going to try to rob me or kill me,” but they never did. They were just insanely friendly.

Let's not forget the paranoia about drugs. All over the United States, people who look like those in the photo break into the houses of ordinary people in the middle of the night and shoot their dogs and sometimes their children — more often than not to protect society from the horrifying danger of harmless, delicious marijuana.

An American Postscript

After surviving a massacre, some lucky survivors of the Aurora shooting will begin the healing process by confronting six-figure medical bills, unaided:

Some of the victims fighting for their lives after being wounded in the movie-theater shooting rampage may face another challenge when they get out of the hospital: enormous medical bills without the benefit of health insurance.

Members of the public, along with Warner Bros., the studio that released the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” have contributed nearly $2 million to help victims, though it’s not clear how much of that will cover medical expenses. One family is raising money on its own online.

And three of the five hospitals treating victims said Wednesday they will limit or completely wipe out medical bills.

Some of the victims, however, still face a long recovery ahead and the associated medical costs — without health insurance. There’s no exact count of how many of them don’t have insurance but statistics suggest many of them might not be covered.

Nearly one in three Coloradans, or about 1.5 million, either have no health insurance or have coverage that is inadequate, according to a 2011 report by The Colorado Trust, a health care advocacy group.

The Humans Behind the Simpsons, and German Word of the Week

This may not work for Germany, where the Simpsons is dubbed into German* (the horror…), but there's something hilarious, and odd, about this Actor's Studio interview of the Simpsons voice actors (h/t MTW):

We must invent a word for 'the eerie feeling which arises from seeing real humans producing the voices of well-known animated characters or voice-dubbed movie stars.' Germans get many more chances to savor this feeling, since all major stars are always dubbed by the same voice actor (for instance, Nicholas Cage in Germany is spoken by Martin Keßler (g)). Many of these voice actors become stars in their own right. This can lead to the phenomenon of Martin Keßler sounding more like 'Nicholas Cage' to Germans than Nicholas Cage himself ever could.

I get the feeling that German is the most practical language for creating this word. Perhaps Zeichentrickfilmsynchronstimmenwirklichkeitsentfremdung?

* I am informed even by Germans who dislike dubbing that the German actors who speak The Simpsons are actually first-rate and very funny in their own right. I can't judge this, since I grew up listening to the Simpsons in the original and the very idea of dubbing it is about as appealing to me as the idea of Helmut Kohl break-dancing nude in a giant tub of Bauernsülze (g).

European Weapons, American Mass Shootings


Charles Lane, a conservative Washington Post editorialist who has made something of a cottage industry pricking the sensibilities of Europeans, takes on European gun exports to the rest of the world:

Americans mourn the victims in Aurora, Colo. In Europe, too, there is grief — mingled with incomprehension. The media chorus: How many more massacres before the United States adopts European-style gun control?

Christoph Prantner of Austria’s Der Standard bemoans American insistence on Second Amendment rights, “even when this freedom occasionally has a very high price and, in a bloody perversion, fatally impairs the freedom of others.”

I can’t disagree. I just wish Prantner had pointed out that James Holmes was allegedly wielding Austrian weaponry when he barged into that darkened theater: specifically, a .40-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol.

For all the tut-tutting across the pond, America’s gun culture exists in symbiosis with Europe’s own culture of precision manufacturing — of which the Glock is a notable expression.

…Though privately held European gun makers do not report sales figures, Barrett estimates that Glock’s U.S. sales are worth $100 million per year.

…You might call Glock the favorite weapon of America’s Amoklaeufer, as those who run amok with guns are known in German.

But that wouldn’t be fair to the makers of the Walther P22 that Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho also carried, or the Sig Sauer P232 that Steven Kazmierczak bore while killing five people at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Both of those are German products. With 230,447 handguns exported to the United States in 2010, Germany is the American gun junkie’s No. 2 European dealer, the ATF reports; Italy, with nearly 130,000, is third.

Ordinarily, there’s a strong case for free trade; consumers get the best goods at the best price. But we’re talking about a product that can kill people — so I’m not sure the usual considerations apply. Death is a pretty serious “negative externality,” as the economists say.

A prohibitive tariff on weapons from Europe wouldn’t end U.S. gun violence, but it might reduce risks at the margin. I sort of like the idea of protectionists and gun-control advocates teaming up against the Second Amendment lobby.

I see what he did there! You hate us for our freedoms, Europe, but at the same time sell us the weapons we use to kill each other. We innocent, wide-eyed Americans should take action to stop you cads from profiting from our misery.

Now, I get that Lane's probably not serious about the trade embargo here. But let's pick apart the flaws in his argument anyway:

  • First, there's nothing inconsistent about Prantner's argument. After all, Glock pistols are also available all over Europe. It's just that European countries have decided on tighter restrictions on who can own them, and reap the benefit of lower levels of lethal handgun violence.
  • The issue, obviously, is not who makes the guns. If European imports were banned, other ones would take their place. The key factor here is American gun laws, which Lane is trying to draw attention away from.
  • Lane's focus on spectacular mass shootings is misguided. These are random events which, for all intents and purposes, can't be prevented and which happen in all developed countries. Intelligent, focused loners such as Holmes or a Breivik will always be able to get their hands on whatever weapons they need, legally or illegally, during the meticulous, months-long process that precedes their crimes. The real threat is everyday robberies, assaults, and muggings. These are invariably much more dangerous when a gun is involved, and the fact that guns are more frequently used in these everyday crimes explains about 50% of the difference in the murder rate between Europe and the U.S.

The more interesting question Lane could have addressed (but which would fatally undermine the Euro-twitting theme) is how Europe got into the blessed condition of having strict controls on firearms, leading to a much lower level of lethal violence in their societies. Americans support much stricter gun control than their government has ever delivered. This is a classic collective action problem, in which a small, highly-organized, tightly-focussed minority interest trumps the broader, diffuse interests of society as a whole.

The party that used to support stricter controls, the Democratic party, has been utterly cowed by the gun lobby. Obama's silence on the subject is deafening. Although the Supreme Court of the U.S. has held that Americans have a right to 'bear arms' under the Second Amendment, that holding doesn't prevent the government from regulating the right in the name of public safety. Yet there's no real discussion about this anymore. The fact that American civil society has effectively given up on this important project and capitulated to a fierce lobby is a serious failing.

Freiburg May Be Heaven

I've been doing some research at the Max Planck Institute for International Criminal Law in Freiburg for the past couple of days, and good G$d, Freiburg is delightful. Even though it's been gray and intermittently rainy, the residents smile at you spontaneously on the street, and from behind the counter. They chat with strangers on the streetcar, and anxiously offer to help you if you look lost. The natives seem to be extremely happy that they're living in Freiburg, and who can blame them? Now, the city was bombed to smithereens on one night in 1944 (Operation Tigerfish (g)), and there are the unavoidable drab post-war buildings here and there, but much of the city was lovingly reconstructed in the post-war decades. The Old Town is quaint and not afraid to be a bit cheesy. The magnificent Minster, build between the 13th and 15th centuries, was almost completely unscathed, and dominates the city skyline.

But the most important thing Freiburg did was to keep itself green. Tree-lined avenues abound, and the Black Forest sprawls literally to the very edge of the historical old town. You can take a tram ride from the middle of town and be in the middle of a charming section of the Southern Black Forest in 3 minutes. The city is positively overgrown with green space, and is renowned for its devotion to all things ecological. It is clearly one of the bike-friendliest cities around, and the large student population fills it with beautiful young people speaking all of their fun, crazy languages. Why, walking down the Guentertalstrasse, I found a copy of a Peter Handke novel (Die Lehre der St. Victoire) just sitting on top of a utility box! I waited a decent interval, then stuffed it in my bag. It was, after all, about to start raining, so the book had to be rescued.

The old town is criss-crossed with small rivulets which remind you involuntarily of medieval open sewage canals, but are now flowing with nice fresh water. They're called Baechle (brooklets), and they're uncovered. which is actually sort of dangerous, which makes them even more charming. The cuisine is leavened with French and Swiss flair, and the wine and Schnapps are world-class. Of course, it helps that it's extremely prosperous. You can always criticize environmental consciousness and an obsession with green spaces as a frippery of the prosperous bourgeoisie, but it's a much more wholesome frippery than many others I can name.

The Max Planck Institute for Criminal Law is an extremely funky building from the mid-1960s. Built on the edge of a forest, it's apparently supposed to remind you of the shapes and colors of the forest — the exterior is festooned with tree-shaped forms, and the interior is entirely wood-paneled. It's like your parents' mid-1960s living room, if your parents lived in Big Sur and had a lot of money. I'm here for another day, so any suggestions are welcome…

Here are a few photos, which don't do the place justice, since it's gray and rainy outside, but still:



The Crumbling Plutocracy Votes

Lawrence Lessig bemoans the influence of the wealthy on American politics:

Here's what we must come to see: America has lost the capacity to govern. On a wide range of critical issues — from global warming to tax reform, from effective financial regulation to real health-care change, from the deficit to defense spending — we have lost the capacity to do anything other than suffer through a miserable status quo. If there is a ship of state, its rudder has been lost. We are drifting. We can't change course. And eventually, and with absolute certainty, in waters such as these, a drifting ship will sink.

…[B]ecause of the way we fund the campaigns that determine our elections, we give the tiniest fraction of America the power to veto any meaningful policy change. Not just change on the left but also change on the right. Because of the structure of influence that we have allowed to develop, the tiniest fraction of the one percent have the effective power to block reform desired by the 99-plus percent.

Yet by "the tiniest fraction of the one percent" I don't necessarily mean the rich. I mean instead the fraction of Americans who are willing to spend their money to influence congressional campaigns for their own interest. That fraction is different depending upon the reform at issue: a different group rallies to block health-care reform than rallies to block global warming legislation. But the key is that under the system we've allowed to evolve, a tiny number (with resources at least) has the power to block reform they don't like.

A tiny number of Americans — .26 percent — give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don't exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable.

I, for one, call it plutocracy. For more America-bashing made in the USA, visit Post-masculine for 10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America. Some are pretty standard, others more original. An example:

The problem with the US is that everyone thinks they are of talent and advantage. As John Steinbeck famously said, the problem with poor Americans is that “they don’t believe they’re poor, but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” It’s this culture of self-delusion that allows America to continue to innovate and churn out new industry more than anyone else in the world. But this shared delusion also unfortunately keeps perpetuating large social inequalities and the quality of life for the average citizen lower than most other developed countries. It’s the price we pay to maintain our growth and economic dominance.

In my Guide to Wealth, I defined being wealthy as, “Having the freedom to maximize one’s life experiences.” In those terms, despite the average American having more material wealth than citizens of most other countries (more cars, bigger houses, nicer televisions), their overall quality of life suffers in my opinion. American people on average work more hours with less vacation, spend more time commuting every day, and are saddled with over $10,000 of debt. That’s a lot of time spent working and buying crap and little time or disposable income for relationships, activities or new experiences.


The Legal Flea Circus

FleaCircus-Prof-W-Heckler-4I'm reading Thomas Fischer's entertaining essay Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft (g) (h/t Markus) and came across this gem:

The most malicious parable concerning the education of lawyers is found in a short sketch by Klaus Eschen: Legal education resembles the training of fleas — you lock them in a box and put a glass plate on top of it. When the fleas try to jump, they hit the glass plate. As time goes by, they learn to jump less high even when the plate is removed. The process is repeated, putting the glass plate ever lower, until the fleas can do no more than creep  around: "When they've learned to move around only by creeping, they have completed their training for the flea circus. In legal terms, this is about the time of the bar exam."

Thomas Fischer, 'Spuren der Strafrechtswissenschaft', in Festschrift Für Ruth Rissing-Van Saan Zum 65. Geburtstag Am 25. Januar 2011, p. 163.

Fischer, a criminal-law judge on Germany's highest criminal court, is here reviewing another book, 'German-Language Criminal Law in Self-Portrait', a collection of autobiographical essays by leading German criminal-law professors. Fischer's essay could have been yet another German exercise in Selbtsbeweihräucherung*, but Fischer decides to probe beneath the surface. What do these essays reveal about the character and personality of German criminal-law professors, and of the state of the profession?

His conclusions are not particularly flattering. He finds the professors, in their own portraits, curiously passionless and conformist. Their life stories highlight conventional bourgeois virtues and portray a relatively quick and painless integration into the realities of university life: the long years spent sucking up to various authority figures, tedious disputes about arcane dogmatic positions, the gradual accumulation of a thick carapace of self-importance and professional vanity.

The primary maxim of most of these professors' lives, Fischer argues, is 'don't rock the boat'. This helps explain why they did startlingly little to analyze the role of German criminal law in National Socialist times. Although the professors writing their own biographies were born too late for the war, their mentors certainly weren't and many of them were active Nazis, sometimes fanatical ones. There are many descriptions of the brilliance and harmless eccentricities of the previous generation of scholars, but their involvement with Nazism is downplayed or ignored altogether. In German professorial circles, it seems, controversies about theoretical constructs which are of no interest to anyone outside a tiny circle are welcome, but discussions about the fundamental questions of personal responsibility, individual and social morality, and other such suspiciously interesting topics must be avoided at all costs.

Altogether a fascinating, if disturbing read. Nor did it go unnoticed: saying non-complimentary and occasionally controversial things about prominent professors has also gotten Fischer into a bit of trouble (g). Is Fischer on target, or is he too cynical? Just click on this link and judge for yourself. Oh wait, there is no link. As with so much of German academic writing, the essay appears nowhere online. It exists only on dead trees, packed into a 900-page book, gathering dust at your local law library. Sad, really — this is a lively and insightful piece which deserves a broader audience…

* Selbtsbeweihräucherung is also the German Word of the Week. It translates, roughly, as 'wafting incense around yourself'. It's a wonderfully poetic way to refer to the sort of pompous, smug self-congratulation that's especially common during official events. Christoph Maria Herbst recently went beyond merely denouncing it to enacting it when he gave a speech at the German movie awards. Handing out portable censers to the guests in the front rows, he encouraged them to waft themselves in incense, since that was the main point of the ceremony — to allow the German film industry to celebrate its ability to make worthy, horribly dull movies.