Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Last Letter From Stalingrad

[Long time readers of this blog will get what I'm up to again here. Over the past few years, I've rolled out a letter or two from the book "Last Letters  From Stalingrad." This year, I'm bringing the focus back to one in particular: Letter 39 in the series of 39 letters. I got my hands on a German language edition and have tweaked the translation and added footnotes to the original text.]

The following letter is from a young German officer on the front lines in Stalingrad, written to his father in the winter of 1942-43. The letter captures the break in the chain of command in the German General Staff. Before Stalingrad, unbroken generations of German Wehrmacht had defended their country and fought with professional honor (that they were politically betrayed at times is another matter). After Stalingrad, the esprit de corps would never be the same. The whole fighting spirit of the future German Bundeswehr died as well.
Dearest Father:1 
The division has been trimmed down2 for the big battle, but the big battle won't take place. You will wonder why I write to you and in care of your office. But what I have to say in this letter can only be said among men. You will transmit it to Mother in your own way. The word is out that we can write today.3 For one familiar with the situation that means that we can do it just once more.
You are a colonel, my dear Father, and a member of the General Staff.4 So you know what this means, and I needn't go into explanations which might sound sentimental. This is the end. It will last perhaps another week, I think, then the game is up.5 I do not want to look for reasons which one could marshal for or against our situation. The reasons are altogether unimportant and pointless. But if I am to say anything about them, it is this: Do not look to us for an explanation of the situation, but to yourselves and to the man who is responsible for it.6 Don't knuckle under7 --you, Father, and all those who think like you. Be on guard, so that a greater disaster8 does not overtake our country. The hell on the Volga should be a warning to you. I beg you, don't brush off 9 this experience.
And now on to the present. Of the whole division only 69 men are still of use. Bleyer is still alive, and so is Hartlieb. Little Degen lost both his arms; he will probably be in Germany soon. It is also the end for him. Ask him for any details you would like to know. D___ has lost all hope. I would like to know what he is thinking at times of the situation and its consequences. We still have two machine guns and 400 rounds of ammunition. One mortar and ten shells. Besides that, only hunger and fatigue. Without waiting for orders, Berg broke out with twenty men. Better to know in three days how things will end, than in three weeks. Can't blame him.
Finally, on to personal matters. You can be sure that everything will end decently. It is a little early at thirty, I know. No sentiments. Handshake for Lydia and Helene. Kiss for Mother (be careful, old man, think of her heart trouble). Kiss for Gerda, regards to all the rest. Hand to helmet, Father. First Lieutenant ____ respectfully gives notice of departure.
The original German has Liebster Vater! The usual way to greet a loved one in German would have been Lieber Vater or "Dear Father."  The author's use of the superlative, Liebster, instead of Lieber, or even Liebester immediately sets a familial tone to the letter.

2 The original has Die Division ist ausgeschlackt... which is much harsher than "trimmed down." Ausgeschlackt (infinitive: ausschlacken) means "cannibalized" or more literally, "butchered out."  The "trimmed down" translation sounds like an obese corps had been made fit; in reality a fit corps had been eviscerated.

3 Originally: Wir dürfen heute schreiben, heißt es bei uns: To us, that means we must write today.

4 Du bist Oberst: Army colonel. His father was a higher-ranked officer, but they were both professional soldiers.

5 The original idiom was: Dann ist der Kragen zu: "then the collar is closed."

6 He's referring to Hitler.

7 Originally, "greater disaster" was written as: Größeres Unheil. "Unheil" seems ironic in view of the well-known Nazi salute.

8 Originally, the idiom "don't knuckle under" was "halten die Nacken stief: keep the neck stiff.
This idiom rhymes with the last two lines of the letter.

9 Originally, the idiom "Don't brush off" was ...schlag deise Erkenntnis nicht in den Wind: don't strike this insight into the wind.
A key to understanding this ongoing series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

We Should Recognize Legal Legerdemain When We See It

According to Politico, the whole Paris Climate Treaty almost got hung up on parsing the difference between the words "shall" and "should."  Apparently, US lawyers threw a hissy fit over contract language invoking what America shall do vs. what America should do (full disclosure, I am no stranger to litigious battles over the meaning of single words in the context of intellectual property disputes). But, my interest is deeper: According to Politico, "shall" has a binding, obligatory legal meaning that "should" lacks (they're fighting over modals!). "Shall" would have meant getting the US Senate involved; "should" just means namby-pamby-only-while-Obama-is-in-office.  "America shall do this" was too serious for Kerry et al. and they insisted that it be changed to "America should do this."  In other words, '"should" is "shall-lite."  I call bullshit on that.

Consult any American or British lexicon and you learn that "should" carries the moral imperative that "shall" lacks.* Shall is more or less just a modal verb indicating future action.

Kerry et al. just morally obliged us to future actions.
* I'm still confused over whether "should" is the subjunctive form of "shall."  Any thoughts?

[added]  More on "should" here. And Victoria responded to me on Twitter!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ten Years Gone

I've been on blogger for ten years. Not at this blog of course which I only started on a lark in 2009, but rather my time as chickenlittle, chickelit, El Pollo Real, and El Pollo Raylan. All most fowl. I told the story once of this chicken obsession. Link

Lyrics after the jump

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Loneliest Proton

No matter how hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small. A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this “i” can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, or rather more than the number of seconds it takes to make half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the very least.  ~ Bill Bryson
That excerpt was blogged by Althouse without much further comment. The reader is supposed to recall from high school or college chemistry just how small the proton really is -- it is after all just a nuclear particle.

Protons cluster in every atom except for hydrogen where they appear alone.  In humans, protons mostly nucleate in groups of eight (as found in oxygen) or six (as found in carbon) with attendant neutrons, but they also go it alone in hydrogen.

Despite the proton's exceedingly tiny size in hydrogen, it is readily detected when placed in a magnetic field. They can even be spatially located in soft tissue by MRI. So there's a nice trade off. If only all the  smallest and hardest to see elements were so easy to detect.

Hydrogen is also giving us a glimpse into the mind as in MRI imaging of the brain.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

From The Pink Into The Stink

I recently re-listened to Roger Waters' entire "The Wall."  I hesitate to call it Pink Floyd's "The Wall" because I believe the David Gilmour/Nick Mason/Richard Wright accounts that Waters became an intolerable control freak during that time and the final product was his and not theirs.

"The Wall" is nothing more than an apologia for unrestricted immigration both here but especially in Europe.

What triggered this? My viewing a biopic about Ginger Baker called "Beware Mr. Baker." It seems to me that both Baker and Waters became insufferable assholes because they both lost their fathers in the fight against fascism.

Who was it again who said that we become what we most hate?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

We Could Use A Moore's Law For Rechargeable Battery Life

Well this is just cool...

Forgetful Scientists Accidentally Quadruple Lithium-Ion Battery Lifespan

Battery technology goes through periodic bouts of breakthroughs followed by long, long, periods of quiescence characterized by product development.

I like the article's focus on chemical elements -- lithium and aluminum.

I found this article while googling tips to conserve lithium-ion battery life.

Seek and ye shall find.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Physics of Storytelling

The living end of characters tells a story. As our eyes move from left to right across its sweep, the story's words leap translated into our imagination from start to finish. It's not just visual though. Read aloud, spoken stories too have living ends -- a beginning and an end heard just now.


An early physics pioneer you rarely hear about is Henry Moseley, who died 100 years ago today. Moseley made an important discovery now called "Moseley's Law."

Up until Moseley's time, chemical elements in the iconic Periodic Table were arranged according to weight. There was other rhyme and reason to the arrangement of elements in the Table, but no true understanding of their masses beyond: things get heavier. There was hope that atomic mass would reveal something fundamental about physics, and the 1914 Nobel Prize went to Harvard's T. W. Richards for his careful and methodical measurements of atomic weights.

Moseley showed that by shining X-rays onto atomic samples, he got a distinct integer value for each element which he called Z. Others before Moseley -- namely Bunsen and Kirchoff -- had shown how unseen atoms could be "seen" and identified by burning them in flames, but Moseley's experiments were beautifully simple and related all elements together with their Z-values instead of getting a unique "fingerprint" for each. Moseley's law is still used to identify elements in deep space.

Exactly what Z was had only been postulated a few years earlier. Niels Bohr had shown that Z was the nuclear charge (1 for the hydrogen atom) and Ernest Rutherford had suggested that Z for heavy atoms might be about half an element's atomic weight. A Dutchman, Antonius van den Broek had suggested--without proof-- that Z was an element's "atomic number." Moseley proved it.

Good ideas need good proof to become good science.

The Periodic Table was never the same after Moseley.

Henry Moseley probably should have gotten the 1915 or 1916 Nobel Prize in Physics, but he was killed by a Turkish bullet at Gallipoli at the age of 27.   
Henry Moseley (1887-1915)
Isaac Asimov wrote: "In view of what he [Moseley] might still have accomplished ... his death might well have been the most costly single death of the War to mankind generally."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cold Gray Relics That Sparked A War For US

The remains of the RMS Lusitania lie on the sea floor off the coast of Ireland. The wreck is festooned with fishing nets and live mines which prevent fuller exploration:

SM U-20, the German sub that sank Lusitania, was stranded off the coast of Denmark in 1916. She was partially destroyed and abandoned by her crew. The wreck rusted there until 1925 when she was destroyed by the Danish government:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

100 Years Ago On The Western Front

--Otto Dix Sturmtruppe gehen unter Gas vor (1924)
1915 was relatively quite on the Western Front. The action was at Gallipoli and the Eastern Front. After declaring war on each other the previous summer, the French and British allies fought the Germans through that first winter to an entrenched stalemate. The Western Front snaked from the Alps through France to the North Sea via Belgium. So horrendous was the scale of killing that at the trench level, both sides considered surrendering by Christmas 1914. link  But their leaders wouldn't hear of it. The following spring the grinding war resumed.

100 years ago this week, the small but once a powerful Belgian city called Ypres will mark a grim centenary: the first military use of chlorine gas.

Why Ypres?
The [1914] fighting at Ypres left the British saddled with a most unfavorable defensive position. It was a salient some six miles deep, with the town of Ypres [Ieper in Flemish] at the center of the base. The Germans held positions on low hills that gave them excellent observation over the entire salient. The area was so low that the construction of entrenchments was difficult, ground water being struck in many places at a depth of a one foot. A far better defensive position would have been one extending north and south just behind Ypres--giving up the salient and the town. Ypres, however, had become a symbol of Allied resistance; and the effect on public opinion of pulling back would have been unfortunate. Therefore, the troops held onto it, year after year. [1]
The Ypres salient hosted perennial WW I battles. The first was in 1914, then again in 1915, and last and worst of all, in 1917. But the second one--100 years ago this week--saw the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans.
On the morning of 22 April 1915 the Germans commenced to shell the Ypres salient. At 1730 a strange green vapor (chlorine gas) drifted toward the Allied lines from some 5,000 gas cylinders in the forward German trenches. The cloud engulfed the portion of the line held by some French Territorials and African troops, who promptly fled and left an undefended gap of over four miles. Not only did the Germans lack reserves to push through the gap but the darkness and the fear of their own gas by the German troops prevented them from realizing the extent of the rout. Even with only the few reserves available, the Germans could have accomplished more than they did. [2]
Chlorine gas had been known since 1630 or so. Sir Humphry Davy first recognized its elemental nature in 1810 and he was allowed to name it and he did so after its color: chloros: yellowish or light green (cf. chlorophyll). The use of chlorine as a bleach and a disinfectant dates back to the late 1700's. By the time of WW I, chlorine was being made on an industrial scale throughout the world. 

So why were the Germans the first to use chlorine gas in war? The French had used tear gas the year before.  One reason was an acute shortage of ammunition and a desire to end the carnage. The latter reasoning is essentially the same used to justify Hiroshima. But technological prowess and a dedicated mastermind also led its use as a WMD by the Germans.
Rudolf Knietsch's work at BASF before the war made it possible to liquefy chlorine using compressors lubricated with petroleum. [Fritz] Haber's idea, explained in detail to [Field Marshall Erich von] Falkenhayn and the top military leadership, was to put siphon tubes into steel cylinders, each containing about 20 kilograms of gas. These were then brought to the trenches, where they were positioned and buried in the ground at intervals of about one meter along a continuous front. A lead pipe was screwed into the opening of the cylinders, then brought up over the top of the trench and aimed in the direction of the enemy. When the wind direction was favorable, that is, blowing toward the enemy, all cylinders were opened simultaneously, and the chlorine was released. The liquid chlorine immediately turned into a gas and mixed with air, forming a yellow-green to white cloud containing about 0.5 percent chlorine at a distance of 50 to 100 meters from the cylinders. Since chlorine is two and a half times as heavy as air, this cloud rolled forward into the enemy trenches and foxholes and forced the enemy troops to flee their positions rapidly. The gas also damaged their weapons with corrosion. The German troops could follow the cloud and penetrate into enemy positions.[3]
Chlorine liquefaction was key because it allowed the transport and positioning of sufficient amounts of the latent gas. British and especially French industrial counterparts had no such capacity for producing liquid chlorine. British production went from 5 to 150 tons per week after Ypres.[4]

This map shows the geographic extent of the chlorine gas dispersion. The gas was released and rolled south across the French lines and towards the town of Ypres [Ieper]:

Link To Original
The hoped for result was to force the French troops out of their trenches and into marauding machine gun fire. In retreating however, the French soldiers simply moved back along with the advancing gas cloud and increased their exposure to its effects.

Both sides were unprepared for the consequences. The French had no protections in place. Within days and before the next gas attack on Canadian troops, word had spread that urine-soaked rags or cloth held against the mouth and nose afforded some protection: urea, a base, neutralized some of the HCl and HOCl.[5] As already mentioned, the Germans failed to follow through with troops.
Two days later the Germans gassed British and Canadian troops. Retaliation occurred in kind the following year.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Words In Drag

A student asked me to prepare a list of German/English cognate verbs; this is useful for building vocabulary. I've been at it for several hours.

Our verb "to drag" is rich in metaphor: dragging something; drag racing; drag queens; take a drag. In English, both verbs "to drag" and "to draw" are closely related.[1] In German, the related verb tragen is more limited: it means to wear, to carry, to bear, and has other supporting roles; they have another word for the basic idea of dragging, ziehen, which means to pull, to drag, to draw, to haul, etc.[2]

Here's the plausible origin of the term "drag race:"
Drag racing (1947), is said to be from thieves' slang drag "automobile" (1935), perhaps ultimately from slang sense of "wagon, buggy" (1755), because a horse would drag it. By 1851 this was transferred to "street," as in the phrase main drag (which some propose as the source of the racing sense). link
There is an old related word "dray" which meant a wagon for hauling stuff; a "drayman" was a "truck driver."

The origin of the term "in drag" is controversial:
Sense of "women's clothing worn by a man" is said to be 1870 theater slang, from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor (another guess is Yiddish trogn "to wear," from German tragen); drag queen is from 1941. link
The "dragging on ground" could be related to women's costumes being longer and having trains. The Yiddish origin sounds better, also given that the German word for costume is Tracht which in turn relates back to tragen.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #37

...They told us this morning that we could write. Just once more, I say, for I know definitely that it will be the last time. You know that I always wrote to two people, two women, to the "other one" and you. And to you most infrequently. I have been very distant from you; Carola was closer to me than you during these last years. We don't want to go over how it happened and why it had to turn out that way. Today, however, when fate gives me the choice of writing to one person only, my letter goes to you, who have been my wife for six years. 
It will do you good to learn that the last letter of the man whom you loved is directed to you. I simply could not manage to write Carola and ask her to give you my regards. So I am asking you, dear Erna, in this hour which contains my last wish: be generous and forgive the wrong I have done you in life. Go to her (she lives with her parents) and tell her that I owe her a great deal, and that I greet her through you, my wife. Tell her that she meant a lot to me during these last days, and that I often thought about what would happen after my return home. But tell her also that you were more to me and that, although I am very sad not to be returning home, in a way I am glad to be compelled to take this road, since it will save the three of us ghastly tortures. 
Is God greater than fate? I am perfectly composed, but you don't know how difficult it is to say in one hour everything that still needs saying. There is a vast deal still to be written, but because it is so much, one must know when to stop, take pen from paper and put it away. Just as now I put my life away. 
Of my company, only five men are still around. Wilmsen among them. The others are all...all grown too tired. Isn't that a nice euphemism for the horror? But what is the point of talking about that now, and what good would it do you to know about it? So keep me alive in your memory as the man who recalled only at the very end that he is your husband and who asks forgiveness; more, asks you to tell everyone you know, Carola included, that I found my way back to you at the moment which will take you away from me forever.
The key to understanding the series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.