Bleg: Tiny Rhine Numbers

While biking yesterday, along the Rhine frontage of the Urdenbach nature preserve, I came across this small number on the shore of the Rhine:

Rhine Number 1

It was about 100 meters from the eastern shore, about where the gray location pinpoint is:


As I rode the trail north, there was a "2" sign after about 100 meters, then a "3", then a "4", but then I turned off the riverside trail.

These are obviously not the large black-and-white kilometer markers along the Rhine (g). Does anyone know what purpose they serve? Thanks in advance for any help.

Germany: Less Perverted Than You Think. Despite All the Apotemnophiliacs.

von pentakatharidis

Canada's National Post fills us in on the latest in the field of apotemnophilia, which we're now apparently supposed to call "transability":

People like Jason [who chopped one of his arms off] have been classified as ‘‘transabled’’ — feeling like imposters in their bodies, their arms and legs in full working order.

“We define transability as the desire or the need for a person identified as able-bodied by other people to transform his or her body to obtain a physical impairment,” says Alexandre Baril, a Quebec born academic who will present on “transability” at this week’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Ottawa.

“The person could want to become deaf, blind, amputee, paraplegic. It’s a really, really strong desire.”

Researchers in Canada are trying to better understand how transabled people think and feel. Clive Baldwin, a Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies who teaches social work at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., has interviewed 37 people worldwide who identify as transabled.

Most of them are men. About half are in Germany and Switzerland, but he knows of a few in Canada. Most crave an amputation or paralysis, though he has interviewed one person who wants his penis removed. Another wants to be blind.

One stereotype many Germans aren't aware of is "the German-speaking parts of Northern Europe are hothouses of the most exotic perversions known to humanity — second only, perhaps, to Japan".

When Germans think of Kraut stereotypes, they generally imagine Alphorns, Bavarian dress, punctuality, precision engineering, Nazis, beer, sausage, pretzels. But not necessarily perversion.

But that is indeed one of the stereotypes. Where does it come from? Perhaps an amalgam of:

  • Weimar-era transvestitism, rape-murders, and Expressionist documentation of same
  • Nazi sadists and homosexuals, and the weirdly sexless Hitler
  • A long — and continuing — history of legalized prostitution
  • Freikörperkultur, i.e. hanging around in large groups naked
  • Extreme German performance and body art (I'm looking at you, Nitsch and, to a much lesser extent, Beuys)
  • Freudian theory and Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis
  • Elfriede Jelinek
  • Armin Meiwes (you know, the cannibal)
  • Berlin gay sex clubs

I could go on. Stereotypes are generally accurate, but I think this one ain't. It's a matter of selection bias and self-fulfilling prophecies: sex sells, so anything happening in Germany which has to do with sex gets reported to the outside world. Germany, like most European cultures, is fairly sexually conservative compared to the United States or Britain. Germans who travel abroad (both men and women) are usually shocked, even primly dismayed, by how promiscuous Anglo-American city-dwellers are. Not to mention all the irresponsible drinking and drug use.

Truth to tell, the kind of Germans in my social circle tend to combine a lack of prudishness with a sensible moderation in matters genital. It's quite admirable. And even the ones who might go in for a suckling-pig swinger orgy (g) or two (as a friend of mine once quipped, this would be the ultimate integration test for foreigners) are unrecognizable outside the club. You get the definite impression that their second-favorite activity, after swinger orgies, is scoring excellent deals on equipment to re-grout their bathtubs.

Germany, I pronounce thee no more perverted than any other advanced country, and a lot less perverted than some. You're welcome!

Lead Exposure and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa — And Now Germany

Kevin Drum has an important point about levels of violence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). First, an image showing the time frame in which MENA countries phased out leaded gasoline:


Drum explains why this is important:

[T]here's a lot of evidence that leaded gasoline produced a wave of violent crime between 1960-1990 in the developed world, and that the introduction of unleaded gasoline eliminated that wave and eventually brought crime rates down nearly to 1960 levels. In most developed countries, leaded gasoline was phased out starting around the mid-70s, which benefited children born after that. When those children reached their late teenage years in the early 90s, they were much less prone to impulsiveness and aggression, which led to lower crime rates.

But not every part of the world followed that timetable. In particular, leaded gasoline continued to be used in the Middle East up through the late 90s. Egypt began phasing it out in 1998, and most other countries followed over the next decade or so. Only a few—including Iraq and Afghanistan—still sell significant amounts of leaded gasoline.

Since lead poisoning affects infants, its affects show up about 18-20 years later. What this means is that in the bright red countries, the cohort of kids who reach their late teen years around 2020 should be significantly less aggressive and violent than previous cohorts. Around 2025 the countries in lighter red will join them. Around 2030 the countries in pink will join. By 2040 or so, the process will be complete.

If you want the longer version of Drum's argument, go this this article, which contains ample citations and further sources. Suffice it to say that I am convinced lead exposure is the main environmental factor in increasing violent crime.

As for the picture, you will no doubt notice that these are precisely the countries from which young males streamed into German in 2015. They are, of course, committing large numbers of all kinds of crimes here in Germany, as you would expect from young males anywhere. That is not open to dispute.

It's still too early to determine whether they are committing proportionately more violent crimes than people who grew up in (relatively) lead-free Germany. I have my suspicions that there are a large number of mentally-disturbed people among the new arrivals, judging by thousands of incidents of criminal and/or bizarre behavior, including public masturbation. Childhood lead exposure leads to lifelong permanent increases in impulsive behavior, and what could be more impulsive than deciding to whip out your penis and masturbate in front of a crowd of strangers?

In any case, if the lead-crime hypothesis is right, and I think it is, then young males from these countries will show an above-average tendency to commit impulsive violent actions which will probably persist until their testosterone levels drop when they reach their 40s. Of course, this doesn't mean most of them will commit violent crimes, only a minority will. Lead exposure varies considerably by geography. Nor does lead exposure turn everyone it affects into monsters, of course. It has marginal, population-wide effects of increasing the incidence of violent actions in a given cohort. But still, the increase is very noticeable and very measurable.

It seems like this is the sort of thing policymakers might want to have considered before letting hundreds of thousands of young males from these areas into the country, no?

James Flynn on Humanity’s Huge Cognitive Leap

I know, it's one of those easily-mockable TED talks. But hey, just because they're easily-mockable doesn't mean they're worthless. This one is fascinating, even if cognitive ability isn't one of your hobbyhorses (it is one of mine). I even added German subtitles.

The 'Flynn Effect' is named for James Flynn, the man in this video. The Flynn describes the fact that in an absolute sense, humanity as a whole has become smarter every decade of the recent past. In the past 150 or so years, humanity has enjoyed steady increases in cognitive ability. Literacy has become almost-universal, average numbers of years educated has increased, the number of people engaged in cognitively demanding professions has skyrocketed, and the median level of cognitive ability has increased, making it normal and routine for people to think in abstract categories that would be unintelligible to people living in, say, 1890. The effects are concentrated mostly in the global North, of course, but they're spreading everywhere.

Forget just about everything you learned in sociology classes, this is probably the most important change in the human condition since the Renaissance. And most people have no idea it happened.

What Made the Black Death so Deadly

Maggie Koerth-Baker reports the pretty amazing fact that if you happened to get infected with Yersinia pestis — the bacterium that caused the Black Plague — today, you would have a 97% chance of surviving even without modern medical care. So why did it kill between 30-50% of Europeans in the 14th century? To find out, scientsts have been looking for ancient plague DNA:


In 2011, a team led by McMaster University paleogeneticist Hendrik
Poinar became the first to reconstruct a full genome for Black Death era
Yersinia pestis.

This was not a full and complete genome drawn from a single
bacterium inhabiting the body of a single victim. Instead, the genome
was patched together from bits and pieces of DNA in remains taken from London's East Smithfield cemetery.
The small chunks were lined up to create a whole, similar to the way
you make a panoramic photo by combining a series of different shots.
Hendrik Poinar calls it a "draft" of the genome, rather than a smooth,
polished work of biology.

The draft tells us a couple of things. First, the Y. pestis of the
Black Death era is related to modern Y. pestis. In fact, it's probably
the ancestor of all the strains of Y. pestis that exist today. Second —
and this is the weird part — there is really not much difference between
the old Y. pestis and the new. It boils down to about 100 genetic
changes, few of which seem to have given the bacteria enough of an
evolutionary advantage that they spread widely through the population.

Genetically, Y. pestis has barely changed. Its infection profile in
the real world, though, has changed massively. That suggests that at
least some of those small alterations in the genome must have been
extremely important. But which ones? And why? To answer those questions,
you could reverse-engineer the evolution of Y. pestis in the
lab. "We'd have an opportunity to test those changes, one at a time, and
find out," Poinar said. "… If we could do it in a form or fashion
that wouldn't terrify people."

So, who's going to join me in volunteering to be infected with ancient plague for Science? After all, with modern medical care, there's probably at least an 80% chance of survival. I like those odds!

Condorcet v. The Circle-Squaring Cranks

Hobson_3While cloistering myself in the Natural Sciences Library to finish an article, I happened upon a book called Squaring the Circle, which is a minute historical exploration of that famous scientific problem, written in 1911 in impeccably dry English scientific prose by one E.W. Hobson, Sc.D, LL.D., F.R.S., Sadleirian Professor or Pure Mathematics, and Fellow of Christ's College, in the University of Cambridge. This biography of Hobson observes that he was '[b]rought up in rigidly Low Church surroundings …' but 'developed strong views of rationalism, becoming … an avowed radical and agnostic'. On pages 3 and 4, he notes that attempts to solve this famously insoluble problem* have occupied uncounted cranks over the centuries:

The solutions propounded by the circle squarer exhibit every grade of skill, varying from the most futile attempts, in which the writers shew an utter lack of power to reason correctly, up to approximate solutions the construction of which required much ingenuity on the part of their inventor. In some cases it requires an effort of sustained attention to find out the precise point in the demonstration at which the error occurs, or in which an approximate determination is made to do duty for a theoretically exact one. The psychology of the scientific crank is a subject with which the officials of every Scientific Society have some practical acquaintance. Every Scientific Society still receives from time to time communications from the circle squarer and the trisector of angles, who often make amusing attempts to disguise the real character of their essays. The solutions propounded by such persons usually involve some misunderstanding as to the nature of the conditions under which the problems are to be solved, and ignore the difference between an approximate construction and the solution of the ideal problem.

It is a common occurrence that such a person sends his solution to the authorities of a foreign University or Scientific Society, accompanied by a statement that the men of Science of the writer's own country have entered into a conspiracy to suppress his· work, owing to jealousy, and that he hopes to receive fairer treatment abroad. The statement is not infrequently accompanied with directions as to the forwarding of any prize of which the writer may be found worthy by the University or Scientific Society addressed, and usually indicates no lack of confidence that the bestowal of such a prize has been amply deserved as the fit reward for the final solution of a problem which has baffled the efforts of a great multitude of predecessors in all ages…. It is interesting to remark that, in the year 1775, the Paris Academy found it necessary to protect its officials against the waste of time and energy involved in examining the efforts of circle squarers. It passed a resolution, which appears in the Minutes of the Academy, that no more solutions were to be examined of the problems of the duplication of the cube, the trisection of the angle, the quadrature of the circle, and that the same resolution should apply to machines for exhibiting perpetual motion. An account of the reasons which led to the adoption of this resolution, drawn up by Condorcet, who was then the perpetual Secretary of the Academy, is appended. It is interesting to remark the strength of the conviction of Mathematicians that the solution of the problem is impossible, more than a century before an irrefutable proof of the correctness of that conviction was discovered.

Apparently the problem is insoluble because pi is a transcendental number, a fact which was proven in 1882. After this introduction, Professor Hobson proceeds, over hundreds of inadvertently Kafkaesque pages, to minutely detail every single failed attempt to solve this problem. One of the more exotic ones gave rise to this diagram:


* Just to be clear, I have never attempted to solve the problem. In fact, I've never even attempted to understand it.

Kroko, The Crocodile With Gestaltzerfall

Time reports on a new line of Paraplüsch toys from Germany representing animals with severe mental illnesses.

For your gift giving consideration: Dub the severely depressed turtle? German
toymaker Paraplush has designed a controversial new line of toys with
an assortment of psychiatric disorders. The company advertises stuffed
animals who suffer from a range of mental illnesses (bipolar disorder,
depression, multiple personality disorder) and even come packaged with a
personalized medical history and treatment plan.

Ifelicious introduces us to the krazy kewt kritters:

Meet the gang!

(all descriptions below were taken from the Paraplüsch website.)


The patient’s hypersensitive hallucinatory perception is a symptom
of a paranoid psychosis. The signs are a mental block and a
Gestaltzerfall (disintegration of structure) of the habitual field of
experience. The consequence is a compensational reactivation of
archaic reaction patterns.

The patient seems to temporarily suffer from the delusion that she
is a wolf despite the fact that she is without a doubt a sheep. The
unexpectedly strong exhibition of the repressed identity completely
overstrains her. Hysterical, psychotic defence reactions underline the
fundamental threat which points at negative experiences and resulting
fragmentation processes. In this state, the patient is unable to accept
herself as a plush animal.

The patient has been trying to solve a wooden jigsaw puzzle for the
past few months without success. He is so absorbed in this repetitive
activity that he is unaware of his surroundings most of the time. Ever
since his disorder has begun, the patient hasn’t talked to anyone. A
connection between the inability to speak and the compulsive urge to
solve jigsaw puzzles seems likely.

The patient’s inner conflict must be interpreted as a sign of an
ambivalent relationships towards its own body. Combined with the
fascination of an apparently much more potent-seeming substitute rattle,
we suspect the manifestation of a deeply rooted rattle complex. Of
course, the enclosed substitute rattle should not be in use on a
permanent basis and should only serve as a transitional object.

Being an animal more accustomed to a relaxed pace, life in the fast
lane has caught up with our patient, sending him into a deep
depression. Can you help him to come out of his shell once more and
enjoy life on the outside? Help Dub to rediscover life – slowly this

The Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables

No, it's not the title of a cloyingly cute independent film, but a neutral description of this post.

I just returned from a second short visit to Vienna (Thanks, UM, for putting me up!). I will post much more on the weekend, but as a teaser, this is what I found at a flea market in Hietzing:

Gypsy Dreambook Cover-1

It's the "Complete Gypsy Woman's Dreambook — With Lotto Numbers and Many Illustrations." Published by Gustav Swoboda Brothers, Vienna, District XII, no date (1920s?).

The book contains 90 pages of explanations of what various images and ideas in dreams signify, drawn from "the oldest Babylonian, Assyrian, and Arabic-Egyptian manuscripts, and revised according to the experiences of old Gypsy women." I'll translate a few entries and post them later.

In the back of the book, there is a table of lucky numbers and days, and then 10 pages of eerie "picture tables" illustrating various types of dreams. Here's an example (click to enlarge):

Gypsy Dreambook Picture Tables 3

The full set is here.

An interesting sidenote: the German edition of this book was banned (g) by the Nazis.

I'm not sure how these picture tables are supposed to be used. Do we have any experts on Central European folk culture here? If so, enlighten us please in comments.

Santa Claus, Liquefied

In January 1990, the American magazine Spy convened a panel of scientific experts to answer the question whether Santa Claus exists. 

Their conclusions, although somewhat dry and technical, have become a heart-warming Christmas classic.  I reprint it here to add a little dose of analytical objectivity to warm Christmas feelings:

1)    No known species of reindeer can fly. But there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not completely rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2)    There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. Since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3)    Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4)    The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that "flying reindeer" (see point #1) could pull ten times the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5)    353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.