Dance on a volcano

Today, Donald J. Trump left Andrews Air Force Base for the last time. In his place will be installed, in a town that looks like it is under military siege, a man my writing mentor refers to as the FICUS (Fraud In Chief of the US).

No, I do not wish him ill. Corrupt as he is, Biden represents the moderate wing of a party that has increasingly become hostage to hard-left extremists. The man was never an intellectual, but the mental decay compared with even Biden in his VP role is very noticeable. If he were still in full possession of his mental powers, he might tell the vindictive hotheads in his own party to cool it. [And I would be praying daily for his health and welfare then — even if only as the lesser evil compared to the radical wing of the party.] Sadly, I believe he is completely the puppet of his handlers at this point.

Whether or not you support the man, it is undeniable that he got to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue under a cloud. It may theoretically [as a lifelong data cruncher, I find this nearly impossible to believe] be possible he won fair and square. But even if he did, it was a squeaker and hardly a sweeping mandate — which looks even weaker, if not nonexistent, considering the lackluster downticket performance of his party.

A pragmatic, astute practical politician would under those circumstances steer toward the middle, and avoid sweeping radical measures, even if they were largely symbolic in character. I could even see the Biden of yesteryear do this.

Alas, I believe that the zealots, would-be oligarchs from Big Tech and Big Finance, and all the other elements of the DINOcrat party are so intoxicated by their manufactured ‘victory’ that they will massively overreach — counting on willing allies in a media that would make the Pravda blush, and a Big Tech apparatus that seems to regard “1984” as a howto manual they intend to one-up, rather than a dystopian warning.

At any point in the past, when some overexcitable conservatives and libertarians predicted civil war in the US, my response was ‘pull the other one, it’s got bells’. Now, I am sad to say, I see this as a very real possibility if zealots prevail.

Instapundit , in his latest NYPost column which you should read in its entirety, puts it this way:

One promise of the Biden campaign was that after the craziness of the Trump years, electing the ex-veep would return the country to normal. Instead, Democrats are doubling down on crazy. It’s enough to make you wish for “smug and arrogant” — but sane.

Four years ago I blogged about Trump and the rage of the Brahmandarins – the half-elected, half-hereditary Nomenklatura caste that sees itself as entitled to the reins of power and authority by virtue of its soi-disant greater learning and intellect. For four years, the Vaishya [merchant caste] Trump filled positions in his administration, wherever he could, with people from non-Brahmandarin backgrounds (much as Margaret Thatcher preferred self-made men — many of them Jews — over Old Etonians in her cabinet). Trump’s record was mixed, and he fired many of the people he appointed — but to the Brahmandarins, actual performance mattered less than that Trump and those appointees were “not our kind, dear”.

I read some commentary pieces across the aisle. The sheer glee that “our kind of people” are again in charge is palpable. Tangible achievements are irrelevant: complete failures can ‘fail upward’ for having a trendy gender identity, and an Ed.D. that might have gotten a B as a course term paper at my alma mater ‘entitles’ the bearer to being addressed as ‘Doctor’. And do not get me started on Anthony Fauci. What matters is that you belong to the Nomenklatura — that is all. A full professor at MIT or Stanford may be accused of being ‘anti-science’ when (s)he opposes the pablum being spouted—never mind credentials, citation impact, and the like.

These people have the sense of entitlement of medieval feudal nobles, the decadence of Versailles courtiers, and sadly not a whiff of the noblesse oblige that one sometimes found among the worthier nobles. They tie the rest of us up in restrictions, regulations, and laws from which they gleefully exempt themselves. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were like the child sticking its finger in a dog’s maw and daring the dog to bite it.

Unless sanity prevails soon — and it is not going to prevail as long as they are obsessed with damnatio memoriae of Trump — they are dancing on a volcano.

“Dance On A Volcano”

UPDATE:

Many of us have been wondering if Biden was actually a Trojan Horse, a moderate they could get ‘elected’ and then replace by a San Francisco lib who couldn’t even get 2% in the primaries. This article by Matt Margolis indicates that the gag order on Biden’s cognitive decline has been lifted from the leftie media, and that the 25th Amendment might well be trotted out to get (barf) Willie Brown’s old squeeze installed instead.

Also, for a very long roundup of shamnauguration news, see J. J. Sefton at Ace of Spades.

And Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that the only things Americans like less than a sore loser is a vindictive winner.

MLK Day meets George Orwell: the bizarro world concept of “multiracial whiteness”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Below is a restoration using AI techniques of a film of his historic “I Have A Dream” speech.

Of course, today having a dream that people should be judged according to the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin, would qualify you as a far-right extremist, as the Babylon Bee quips.

And on this MLK Day 2021, dear reader, we have officially reached peak academentia. A ‘professor’ at New York University, using critical Marxist theory [what else?] ascribes black and Latino support for Donald Trump to, guess what: “multiracial whiteness“.

Multiracial. Whiteness.

I. Can’t. Even.

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. - George Orwell
One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” (George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”, 1945)

I have a feeling I know very well what Martin Luther King, were he alive today, would have to say to this ‘professor’ and the likes of her.

UPDATE: go read “Cockburn” at The Spectator satirizing “The terrifying scourge of ‘multiracial whiteness’” It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad that this is the level of pseudo-intellectual sophistry academia has sunk to #academentia

COVID19 mini-update: fixing your indoor air (not just for COVID); vitamin D evidence in the House of Commons; Bell’s Palsy; COVID19 risk as a function of age

From Dr. Roger Seheult’s medical tutoring channel

Via Dr. John Campbell, David Davis MP presents some great evidence from the Spanish region of Andalusia about administering calciferol (a vitamin D metabolite) reducing mortality by about 2/3 among vulnerable patients.

For some reason, Israel seems to have many fewer adverse events than the US, let alone Norway. I suspect that screening prospective vaccinees for a history of allergic reactions may pay off here: on the three occasions we showed up for jabs (Mrs. Arbel twice, me once), we were questioned in detail about this, and our answers cross-referenced with our files in the HMO’s medical database. The nurse was actually reluctant to jab me because of some spurious suspected cross-reaction with an IV antibiotic: I convinced her that if I never had an allergic reaction in over a decade of annual flu shots, chances were I’d be fine with a Pfizer mRNA vaccine.

About a dozen people reported Bell’s Palsy, a form of facial paralysis. However, having had a mild bout of this in the wake of a viral infection last year, I suspect many of these are cum hoc sed non propter hoc (together with, but not because of it):

In the general population, having nothing to do with Covid-19 nor the Covid-19 vaccine, approximately 40,000 individuals develop Bell’s palsy annually in the United States, or approximately 1 in 10,000. In both groups of vaccine trial participants, the rate (1 in 10,000) was commensurate with the incidence of sudden facial paralysis in the general population. While the exact cause is often not identifiable, it is most likely caused by viral inflammation of the nerve. Typically the herpesvirus lives in a dormant state in the nerve, and may become activated and cause the nerve to swell in times of stress or illness. The bacteria that causes Lyme disease can also cause dysfunction and resultant weakness or paralysis of the facial nerve. In many cases, the paralysis resolves spontaneously over weeks. But in some cases, some or all of the weakness remains.

And finally, I had a few queries: just how dependent is mortality on age? I have previously covered a paper with a meta-analysis presenting a simple exponential dependence of the infection fatality rate on age:

https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-020-00698-1

(numbers in parentheses are uncertainty intervals on the parameters)

In addition, here is a table extracted from the latest daily update of the Clalit HMO: and the Ministry of Health COVID19 dashboard. (Note: our criteria for coding a death as COVID are fairly strict.)

Age bracketNumber of deadPercentage of deadPercentage of infections
​9-01​0.03%11.7%
​19-102​0.05%20.9%
​29-2015​0.38%19.1%
​39-3022​0.55%14.1%
​49-4051​1.28%12.6%
​59-502015.05%​9.5%
​69-60527​13.23%6.6%
​79-7098424.70%3.3%
​89-801,367​34.31%1.6%
90+​814​20.43%0.6%
Total COVID19 fatalities in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic: 3,984.

Erich Fellgiebel, his role in “Valkyrie”, and how it was misrepresented in the movie

The Hollywood movie “Valkyrie”, featuring Tom Cruise as Col. von Stauffenberg, is a pretty good dramatization of the abortive July 20, 1944 plot. The movie scores high marks for historical accuracy by Hollywood standards — but that would ordinarily be damning with very faint praise. It is not an easy tale to compress into a 2-hour movie without at least some dramatic license: the latter included having some composite characters, such as Henning von Tresckow (played by Kenneth Branagh) carrying out some actions that in real life were those of his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff (one of the few survivors). The single weakest point about the movie was the portrayal of Gen. Erich Fellgiebel, the head of the Signals Corps, as a weak, hesitant drunkard who had to be strong-armed by Stauffenberg into going along with the plot. (It appears the script made a composite of Fellgiebel, Helmut Stieff, and some others.)

I just got hold of a German-language volume entitled “Stauffenberg’s Gefährten: Das Schicksal der unbekannten Verschwörer” (S.’s companions: the fate of the unknown conspirators), edited by the former deputy chair of the Bundestag, Antje Vollmer, and the chief archivist of the Springer publishing house, Lars-Broder Keil. It consists of ten short biographies of co-conspirators: the one about Fellgiebel [a secondary character in my alternate history series “Operation Flash”] was written by Keil himself. Let me give you my summary in English: you will see this man was very unlike his cartoonish portrayal by Eddie Izzard.

General Erich Fellgiebel (Picture credit: Memorial for the German Resistance, public domain)

Youth and career

Erich Fellgiebel (EF) was born Oct. 4, 1886 as oldest of four children of landowner Albert Fellgiebel, on the Buchenhagen estate near Posen [presently Poznan, Poland]. The children loved the outdoors and the flat, wide open spaces. Fellgiebel was a quick and precocious learner. That and his introvert demeanor got him the nickname “Herr Professor”. Only later his character evolved to be more extrovert.

EF became a Prussian Army cadet in 1905. With his technical interests, he was attracted to telegraphy and thus quickly gravitated in the emerging Signals direction, but horseback riding also became a lifelong passion.

Seeing the total failure of communications during WW I, EF devoted himself in the Weimar-era Reichswehr to intensive development in this regard. He worked more like a modern industrial manager than like a traditional officer: teamwork, a knack for picking good people, delegating day-to-day business to trusted subordinates to focus on unsolved problems, without losing sight of the whole. He was one of the first people in Germany to own a[n experimental] TV set. Open, convivial, charismatic, he loved entertaining people: his weaknesses were impulsivity, impatience, and a degree of adrenalin addiction.

His first marriage failed 1919, shortly after his first son Walther-Peer Fellgiebel was born: the latter would be raised largely by foster parents, become a highly decorated front officer in WW II and after the war had a dual career as an industrial manager and the chair of the Association of Knight’s Cross Awardees (Ordensgemeinschaft der Ritterkreuzträger. 1920 EF remarried to his cousin Cläre, an intellectual, studious woman who became fluent in French and English. Two more children from that marriage, daughetr Susanne and son Gert, who idolized their father.

EF’s nickname, as the Wehrmacht’s most senior communications officer, was “Strippenpapst” ([paper] strips pope). He introduced many innovations: long-distance field cables, UHF transmissions, radios in every tank,… aside from [Keil does not discuss this] making the Enigma system the primary means of encrypted radio communications.

Disgust with National Socialism and recruitment into the conspiracy


Like his superior officers, Chief of Staff Col.-Gen.[*] Ludwig Beck [forced into retirement 1938], and the latter’s successor Col.-Gen. Franz Halder, EF held the opinion Germany should not conduct a war of aggression. Through them EF makes contact with the military resistance, but flinches from overt insubordination until 1942. He changed his mind after seeing how Hitler [y”sh] degrades seasoned general staff officers to flunkies and gives ever more nonsensical directives. EF begins to openly make critical, even derogatory statements, even in the presence of junior officers fed on NS propaganda. On one occasion somebody chided him, “General, if somebody were to hear this.” EF answered, “Well, one has to risk one’s neck sometimes.”

Himmler tells one of his aides: “This Fellgiebel is a peculiar man. He is actually a pacifist.” Aide: “He never hid his opinion about war.” “Well, then he shouldn’t have become a general.”

Yet EF is tolerated, since he seems indispensable. But Hitler no longer tolerates his presence. One Lt.-Col. Ludolf Sander becomes EF’s liaison officer at the Wolf’s Lair/Wolfsschanze, while Fellgiebel sits at the Army HQ in Mauerwald, 20 km away by trolley. But he still has the run of the place, and comes over regularly.

At the wedding of Walther-Peer in March 1944 he even says: “From this happy officer’s couple you will go in a year to a family of acre coachmen — if you’re lucky.” No later than February 1943, he was himself recruiting resistants together with his chief of staff, Col. Kurt Hahn, and his own deputy Lt.-Gen. Fritz Thiele. His team gets people in place in five branches of Armed Forces Signals (Heeresnachrichtenwesen, HNW).

Fellgiebel was involved in planning troop movements for the coup, together with Stauffenberg and Olbricht, and has direct contact with some others, under cover of a shared passion for horseback riding.

Why he didn’t blow up the switchboard

The claim that the July 20 coup failed “because Fellgiebel didn’t blow up the switchboard at the Wolf’s Lair as he was supposed to” was first made in a February 1945 OSS report to FDR, presumably written by the OSS Chief of Station for Europe, future CIA director Allen Dulles. The latter’s primary source of information was his friend and asset Hans-Bernd Gisevius,

Blowing up the switchboard at Rastenburg would have been pointless because of all the backups and redundancies in the system. Better to block all transmissions from the NS and let all communications from the conspirators through.

Fellgiebel, after he sees H. stumbling about alive, places a creatively-ambiguous phone call out “Something terrible has happened! The Führer is alive!” (Etwas furchtbares ist passiert. Der Führer lebt!) — in order to give the conspirators a heads-up that their target is still alive. When no ‘stand down’ response follows, he tells his own underlings in the conspiracy to proceed as planned.

His deputy Thiele shows nerves though, as he knows Fromm won’t cooperate now.

Arrest, trial, and death

Fellgiebel is arrested on the 21st. His aide-de-camp Arntz offers him his pistol, but he declines [to commit suicide[: “One stands up, one does not do such a thing”. This Arntz was actually a linguist, and had been thoroughly NSDAP until he had a falling out over disagreement with the “official” rune-ology (that facetiously tried to ‘prove’ that writing was invented by the ancient Germans). Postwar, Arntz became the main source about the Fellgiebel group.

Fellgiebel and Hahn claimed to the Gestapo that they had not made any major planning — because if they revealed such, their co-conspirators would be sought and found. Perversely, the Gestapo transcripts of these interrogations were later cited by Dulles

His relatives were arrested and placed in Sippenhaft (kin imprisonment): wife and son for 2.5 months, after which Gerd (who apparently was the only one other than EF himself who knew something about the coup) was sent to a penal unit and did not survive the war. Even the half-estranged son Walther-Peer, was kept in solitary confinement in the cell next to his father. He heard him walk around — since a severe car accident in 1928 he wore a metal brace on the lower thigh, which made the sound of his walk unmistakable. Eventually, Walther-Peer was released following intercession by his superiors.

Aftermath

Daughter Susanne married in March 1945.

After the war, Cläre needs endurance. The Gestapo took away her house and everything she owned, even clothing. But she has trouble getting compensation or a widow’s pension after the war, as EF was not recognized as a resistant. She survives on odd jobs, acting as interpreter for the British Red Cross etc. In the end, even Adenauer’s chancellery gets involved to assist her in navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth. The various procedures in Nordrhein-Westfalen and Berlin drag out until the late 1950s.

When in September 1952 the Bundeszentrale für Heimatdienst (Federal Central Bureau for Home Service) issues a brochure “The Truth About July 20” and paints EF derogatorily there, she files a formal objection including testimony from contemporaries, and three days later is issued a formal letter of apology.

Even under severe torture, EF had not betrayed names or details. Those who survived because of that now come to the widow’s aid.

After EF was sentenced to death by the Volksgericht (People’s [Kangaroo] Court), the notorious “hanging judge” Roland Freisler paints in graphic detail how he will die. EF answers Freisler on behalf of the condemned, “Your [dis]honor, you’d better hurry up with the hanging, or you’ll be hanged before us.” (Herr Richter, beeilen Sie such fit der Aufhängen, sonst hängen Sie eher als wir.)

These are the words of an unbroken man, not of a coward.

[*] Generaloberst (Colonel-General, or if you like Senior General) was a Wehrmacht rank senior to General and junior to Field Marshal/Generalfeldmarschall

COVID19 mini-update, January 14, 2020: Israel has vaccinated 80% of ages 70+

The Times of Israel reports on its liveblog that a kindergarten teacher in Ramle was 1st-dose recipient #2,000,000, in the presence of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Health Edelstein.

As we have a “young” population pyramid, this means great progress has been made in the most at-risk age brackets. This is best illustrated by this chart of vaccination rates by age bracket, screenshotted from the Ministry of Health’s website: note that of the highly vulnerable 70+ population, about 80% already got their first jabs. At present, first doses are available to ages 50 and over — the younger vaccinees represent people working in healthcare, law enforcement, and education; people with pre-existing conditions; and some who hung around vaccination centers to get “use it or lose it” leftover doses at the end of the session. Official guidelines are not to vaccinate anyone at ages 0-16, but clearly some have been.

Vaccination coverage by age brackets. Dark green: 1st Pfizer doses; light green: 2nd Pfizer doses

Again, let me be clear: this is without any vaccination mandate of any kind. If our public health officials had been as condescending, zig-zaggy, manipulative, and politically opportunistic as their US counterparts, you can be sure this graph would look quite different.

As more than 3 weeks have passed since the beginning of the campaign, now the first batch of patients are getting their second shots. Mrs. Arbel (who got her first jab 3 weeks ago as she is in a risk group) today got her second Pfizer injection: once again, it was administered by an army medic on reserve duty. Thus far, side effects are similar to what she experienced from the 1st jab: mild fatigue setting in after several hours, some swelling in the arm around the injection site. Stay tuned for updates.

She was told to still be cautious for about a week, giving the immune system a chance to get fully up to speed. The Phase III trial indicated a protection rate in the 95% range, but in a few weeks to a month, a firmer number will be established from the massive “Phase IV trial” that our vaccine drive amounts to.

Meanwhile, at the Technion, students and staff are being asked to screen themselves weekly using an antibody “spit test” developed in-house, in an effort to normalize life on campus through regular self-screening. (Aside from science and engineering, the Technion also includes a well-reputed medical school [including two Nobel laureates on the faculty] centered around the Rambam Hospital [*], one of our ‘Big Four’. So the necessary expertise is definitely there.)

Also, back in the USA, Dr. Mike Hansen had his own 2nd Pfizer shot and tells of his experiences on video.

[*] Rambam, the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon, is how we call Maimonides in Hebrew

COVID19 update, January 13, 2020: first-person Pfizer vaccination report

When Israel lowered the minimum vaccination age (absent risk factors) for the general population from 60 to 55 (meanwhile it’s been lowered to 50), I immediately logged on to the site of my HMO [*] and signed up — I needed two tries, as appointments were apparently being snapped up by others. Appointments were allocated in 8-minute slots.

I showed up at the address, which turned out to be a matnas (community center) in an adjacent suburb that the Clalit and Maccabi HMOs had turned into an improvised vaccination center. The login clerk swiped my insurance card, checked my details (name, mispar zehut/[national] ID number — which doubles as health insurance number here –,…) verified that I didn’t have a fever, and referred me to one of four vaccination rooms.

The attendant turned out not to be a nurse, but a lady IDF medic who had been called up for reserve duty for our vaccination drive. She was a native English speaker, so we spoke English even though I am fully fluent in Hebrew. She gave me a fairly careful interview to ensure I had no history of allergic responses to vaccinations, antibiotics (huh?), … and checked my HMO file on her cell phone for annotations about a (spurious) supposed allergic reaction to an IV antibiotic. When I told her I’d had annual flu shots for over a decade without anything untoward, she verified that my last was more than 2 weeks ago — then prepared the shot, but asked me to wait for 30 minutes outside afterward rather than the usual 15, just in case.

She then drew a syringe from a Pfizer vaccine vial, while checking with me whether I was a leftie or a rightie (heh) — then jabbed me in my left arm. We waited on chairs in the courtyard of the community center, keeping social distance, chatting, and reading until the half hour was up.

Meanwhile, after 6 hours, I am just feeling some signs that something was injected, plus some tingling in the fingers of that hand. No fatigue, nothing else so far. Stay tuned for updates.

[*] Every citizen or permanent resident of Israel by law has to be a member of one of the four licensed HMOs: Clalit (“General”, the largest), Meuchedet (“United”), Maccabi (“Maccabee”), and the small niche player Leumit (“Nationalist”). I have blogged about this system and its genesis before.

UPDATE: Israel’s Ministry of Health, collating data from the four HMOs, reports that the first shot on its own is about 50% protective after 14 days — values for the individual HMOs vary from  33% for Clalit to 60% for Maccabi. “The second dose is expected to bring immunity levels to some 95% after about a week.”

[Public Health Director of the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon] “Alroy-Preis said that 73% of Israelis who are over the age of 60 or who have other high-risk factors have already been vaccinated with at least one shot, but noted that inoculations were slower in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities.”

UPDATE 2: now 10.5 hours after the shot. The swelling/fullness sensation in my upper arm has receded, as have the tingles in my left hand.

UPDATE 3: now next morning — all back to normal. This ranks with the ‘gentler’ flu shots I’ve gotten (I haven’t skipped a year for over a decade).

COVID19 mini-update, Jan. 12, 2020: sitrep from Israel

Israel is currently approaching 1.9 million first doses, or over 20% of the population. Yesterday, the eligible age bracket was extended downwards to 55, so I signed up and will get my first Pfizer jab tomorrow, G-d and logistics willing. Mrs., who is in a risk group, will get her 2nd jab. Stay tuned for updates — only one of the many people we spoke to in our circle had significant unpleasant side effects (that sounded like resulting from swollen lymph nodes). Most commonly, people have a bit of malaise on the 1st day and tenderness at the injection site for the 1st and 2nd days — or (especially among older people) seemingly no symptoms at all.

A report from the CDC indicated about one anaphylaxis case per 100,000 injections. We apparently are seeing much less than that here —- but our medical system, whatever the limitations and fiscal sustainability of socialized medicine, exercises much tighter control over patient data, and people with a history of allergic reactions to vaccine are screened out both by the computer (the four licenses HMOs —- every Israeli has to belong to one, although you can move between them once every six months if you so desire) and by the short intake interviews at the vaccination sites.

Most of the older and vulnerable population has gotten their 1st shots at this point. How much protection does the 1st shot on its own impart? Initial results, based on COVID19 hospital admissions, etc., indicate that the single dose on its own, without the waiting period required for the immune system to learn its new enemy, is about 33% protective —- we were told about 50% from the first dose, 95% from both doses plus a 2-week wait afterwards.

But in truth, our whole country has become a giant Phase IV test site. Indeed, an article in the Israeli business paper GLOBES claimed that exactly this has been the strategy used to pitch to the vaccine manufacturers for advance access. The fear was that, if we didn’t get in early, we’d end up sucking hind teat after the large developed countries. Other advantages touted were a small, densely populated country where logistics are comparatively simple, as well as the above mentioned highly integrated medical system.

The Reichstag Fire, and “killing democracy in order to ‘save’ it”

Disclaimer: this post has been on my todo list for a while as part of “deep background research” into my alternate history series. Any similarity to recent events at the US Capitol is neither coincidental nor intentional, but merely unavoidable. “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” (Mark Twain) [*]

Picture this. You have just become the head of government (through a dirty coalition maneuver, let’s say), but your power is constrained by the other parties (including your coalition partners). What you really are after is unfettered power to realize your ‘vision’ of society. What better way to acquire it — and get the majority of people behind you — than to orchestrate an attack on the most visible symbol of democracy, ostensibly carried out by your chief opponent? Giving you a pretext to “suspend democracy in order to save it?”

On Monday night, February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building — then as now Germany’s equivalent of the Capitol building — was on fire. With great difficulty, firefighters were able to control the blaze. Still, the damage was extensive enough that the Reichstag had to meet in the Kroll opera house across the square, until its by then sham existence ended twelve years later. Evidence of arson was quickly discovered, and an unemployed construction worker of Dutch origin, named Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested on the scene. He confessed (presumably after some ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques were applied) to being a communist and to having set the fire. Yet forensic researchers quickly concluded that so many different fires had been started that he could not have done it all alone.

A trial took place in Leipzig — at a time the judiciary in Germany still possessed a semblance of independence — and van der Lubbe stood trial together with KPD faction chair Ernst Torgler and three Bulgarian communists. (It must be pointed out that at the time, the KPD was not a fringe movement in Germany but its third-largest party, after the NSDAP and the Social Democrats. ) The most senior among the Bulgarians, future Comintern and later Bulgarian Communist Party chairman Georgi Dimitrov, famously declined counsel and conducted his own defense with unusual skill and verve. During a notorious mutual cross-examination between himself and Göring, the latter came out looking like a fool and a knave against the wily Dimitrov. In the end, all defendants were acquitted except van der Lubbe, who was sentenced to death and beheaded (under an ex post facto law mandating the death penalty for arson to public buildings). Dimitrov and his companions were expelled across the border and made their way to the USSR.[**]

Meanwhile, already on the morning after the fire, the head of state, Reichspresident Paul von Hindenburg, had signed the Reichstagbrandverordnung (Reichstag Fire Decree). This suspended freedom of expression and the press, habeas corpus, secrecy of the mail and telephone, the right of free association, and other civil liberties. [It wasn’t like they could have Twitter and Facebook censor and permaban people in those days ;)] Three weeks later followed the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), which effectively gave the head of government, Chancellor Adolf HisNameBeErased, plenary powers and made him dictator in all but name. (The next year, after Hindenburg’s death, he would merge the Chancellorship and the Presidency into the single dictatorial office of “Führer”, leader.) Theoretically this Enabling Act would expire after four years unless renewed; in practice, what was by then a single-party rubber stamparliament renewed the Enabling Act twice, as need

Postwar historians and writers fall into three camps.
(a) The “sole perpetrator” thesis is primarily defended by Fritz Tobias, a postwar civil servant who moonlighted as a nonfiction writer, and whose book Der Reichstagsbrand was originally serialized in the German weekly Der Spiegel. An experienced arsonist might conceivably have been able to do this alone, and the theory has Occam’s Razor on its side. Tobias got support from Hans Mommsen, the father of the “functionalist” school of Third Reich and Shoah historiography — who saw the Nazis as just exploiting an extraordinary (for them) piece of luck.
(b) In contrast, the entertaining but self-serving, and in places demonstrably unreliable, memoir Bis zum bitteren Ende (“To The Bitter End“) of anti-Hitler conspiracy member Hans-Bernd Gisevius claims the arson was carried out by a ten-man SA squad, led by a construction engineer with the unintentionally cartoonish name Heini Gewehr (“Henny Rifle”). They supposedly making its way from Göring’s official residence (as Reichstag Chairman) to the Reichstag via an underground tunnel connecting to a common boiler room. [Said tunnel did exist.] Unfortunately for that theory, Gewehr — whom Gisevius assumed to be dead — sued him for defamation (he had lost multiple city contracts in Düsseldorf after has alleged role in the Reichstag fire became public) and won the trial at every instance. “Cui bono?” (Latin: whom does it benefit?) definitely militates in favor of “the SA did it themselves”.
(c) This primarily leaves the third (and to me most plausible) option, that van der Lubbe did set some of the fire, but had been lured into doing so under false flag, and that the main arsonists set him up as the fall guy. Benjamin Carter Hett’s academic monograph “Burning The Reichstag” makes this case, although the well-known WW II and Holocaust historian Richard J. Evans, in the London Review of Books, has voiced substantial criticism of Hett’s work (you can read it and Hett’s rebuttal here).

I realize that at many turning points in history, our timeline took the turn it did because of sheer coincidence — indeed, I am exploring a major ‘road not taken’ in an alternate history series. But some ‘happenstances’ are so convenient as to defy credulity — whether they took place in 1933 or last week.

[*] In particular, I am not implying equivalence between the NSDAP and a present-day US political party— even though some of those who claim they are fighting fascists might be given pause if self-aware enough to see their own behavior.
[**] It was the inability to manipulate the outcome of the Leipzig Trial to his liking that led the dictator to create the notorious Volksgericht [People’s Court], a kangaroo court for ‘political’ crimes.

UPDATE:

The disclaimer is a paraphrase of the German-language one at the beginning of Die verlohrene Ehre der Katarina Blum: by Heinrich Böll: “[…] so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.“

Vers la flamme/Toward the flame

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin[*] in his last years, was obsessed by igneous imagery. One piano piece so inspired is Vers la flamme (“toward the flame”). Below are three very different performances of this very difficult piece. Any connection to current events in Washington, DC is neither intentional nor coincidental, but merely inevitable.[**]

[*] While Molotov’s real last name was Scriabin, he was not the composer’s first cousin as I used to believe.

[**] Paraphrasing Heinrich Böll’s disclaimer in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”

COVID19 mini-update, January 5, 2020: Third lockdown in Israel; progress in vaccination drive; Dr. John Campbell with a UK update

(1) Facing a steep rise in hospital admissions, Israel is going on a third hard lockdown starting Thursday at midnight (There was a soft not-quite-lockdown in force, which was widely ignored.) There is also the idea that by the time this 10 day-2 week lockdown would end, most people currently vaccinated would have had their 2nd shots.

(2) Via Dr. John Campbell, here is a worldwide vaccination tracker. At present, as a percentage of the population, Israel is the leader with 15%, followed by the United Arab Emirates at 7.7% and Baḥrain at 4.2%. Below is the table sorted by percentage of the population.

I do not know if the vaccination drives in the Arab countries are age-selective: I know the one in the UK is. Here,

About 1,370,000 Israelis received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Almost 146,000 of them were inoculated on Monday alone. Approximately 80% of Israelis over the age of 75 have been vaccinated, the CEO of Clalit Health Services [the largest of our four licensed HMOs, NA] told Army Radio Tuesday morning.[…] Maccabi Healthcare Services announced that over 80% of Maccabi members who are at risk have scheduled an appointment to receive the vaccination.

Let me stress: we get this level of response without a mandate of any kind. And these data on the protective effect of the first shot seem pretty encouraging:

Speaking during a briefing on Tuesday, she said that preliminary data shows that after two weeks, some 50% of some 100 people who were vaccinated two weeks ago have developed strong antibodies against the virus. This is up from only between 1% and 2% after one week. Sheba [Medical Center, a.k.a., Tel Hashomer, one of the “Big Four” research and teaching hospitals here] is evaluating the level of antibodies in 400 medical workers who were inoculated at the hospital, but [Dr.] Regev-Yochay said that not everyone has had the vaccine long enough to prove its effectiveness. The hospital will continue to follow these people and more. […]

[…S]he would recommend pushing off administering the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine by a month in order to inoculate more Israelis.“I think it is more important to get more people vaccinated,” said Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of [the] Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit from Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, “We are only talking about a month. I don’t think it will cause any damage and the damage from the disease is greater.”

I am personally in two minds about this. Yes, covering another one or two age brackets [50-59, then 40-49] would be nice — but the 60+ bracket accounts for almost 95% of the mortality, so there would seem to be a bigger payoff from getting them 90% protected than from giving 50% protection to more people.

Apropos, when I logged on to my HMO’s website this morning, I got a message that for the time being eligibility for the vaccine would not be expanded. It appears that vaccine stocks on hand are approaching 50% depletion, and the idea is to ensure that everyone who got a 1st shot can receive a 2nd shot. The article puts forward the argument

On a related note, I had suspected for some time that there was no love lost between the former COVID19 czar, Prof. Roni Gamzu (now back to his day job as CEO of Ichilov Medical Center, another of the “Big Four”), and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. This article confirms it. Pretty much the only nice thing I can say about Edelstein is that he’s an improvement compared to his precedessor Yaakov Litzman— an achievement comparable to being a better musician than my late dog, of blessed memory.

(3) Dr. John Campbell with updates on the situation in the UK and the lockdowns

COVID19 mini-update, January 4, 2020: India approves Oxford-AstraZeneca and local Bharatech vaccines; Israel update; UK lockdown; Instapundit; Dr. Seheult meets Dr. Campbell

(1) mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna are not practical options in countries like India, because of their cost and the need for very low temperature storage and transport chains. The more traditional Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine is more attractive in that regard; now India’s regulators have approved both that vaccine and a homegrown one developed by Bharatech.

(2) Israel has thus far given first Pfizer doses about 1.25 million people, and may have to start slowing down as vaccine stocks get depleted. (The HMOs are setting aside 2nd shots for everybody who got the first.) Based on data from PopulationPyramid.net, in 2019 we had 1.392 million people age in the eligible age bracket 60 and over. Subtract about a quarter million doses for healthcare workers in the broadest sense, plus about 100,000 doses to younger people. (Part of these are presumably high-risk patients, such as a colleague of mine who is ten years younger but a cancer survivor; others are”use it or lose it” injections at the end of a vaccination shift, where the staff sensibly will inject all comers rather than discard the vaccines — which need to be used within six hours after defrosting.) Still, this means that we appear to have covered 60-70% of our 60+ population.

Meanwhile, Israel’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein (frequent readers will know I do not have a high opinion of him) insists that our country needs another 2-week hard lockdown “to avoid Italian situations”. Giving him the benefit of the doubt here, it may be that this enables people in the most vulnerable groups to get their 2nd shot and have 90% protection, give or take. Do keep in mind that age groups 60+ accounts for a whopping 94% (!) of mortality here; just vaccinating those adequately should put a very serious dent in morbidity and mortality. If we can stretch the coverage window down to age 50 (he said self-servingly ;)) one might even be able to consider a herd immunity strategy for the remaining younger people.

To anybody abroad sitting on the fence about whether having the shot is worth their while, I might suggest: have a look at our morbidity and mortality figures in a month. Those should be decaying rapidly by then if the vaccine is anywhere near as effective as the Phase III trials indicated.

(3) British PM Boris Johnson just announced a lockdown. The Daily Telegraph has the details.

(4) The great blog-patriarch Instapundit had COVID over Christmas. He’s a bit of a “smart health nut” and keeps in good shape, and started taking Vitamin D and zinc supplements early in the pandemic. All this may have helped: he reported symptoms on the order of a really nasty cold, but got over it fairly quickly. His wife never caught it: then again, a recent paper indicated an ‘attack rate’ for household transmission of 17% (about 1 in 6). I know several couples in our social circle where one spouse got COVID and the other either stayed asymptomatic or didn’t get infected at all— but this is by no means universally so.

The great science fiction author David Weber also got COVID — but a rather more severe case, consistent with older age and less favorable health baseline. Refua shlema (speedy healing).

(5) Two educators I have featured here often, pulmonologist and medical school professor Dr. John Seheult and retired nursing school lecturer and textbook author John Campbell, here have a long video discussion with each other.

New Year’s Day post: A brief guide to Bach’s Works Catalogue (BWV), part 2

I. VOCAL WORKS, ACCOMPANIED AND A CAPELLA: BWV 1–524

covered in part 1

II. Instrumental works, BWV 525-1080

A. Organ works BWV 525-771

covered in part 1

B. Solo Keyboard Works BWV 772-994

The “Clavier” or “Keyboard” in Bach’s time meant either the clavichord (which is velocity-sensitive like a piano, but is woefully lacking in sonic volume for unamplified public performance) or the harpsichord (which is loud enough for public performance but lacks velocity sensitivity). Only in his final decade did he have some experience with early fortepianos by Silbermann (and in fact was an agent for them): nevertheless, pianists like Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigori Sokolov,… all perform the following works on modern grand pianos.

First come two sets of didactic, yet highly musical, short pieces Bach originally wrote for teaching his eldest son W. Friedemann Bach, then continued to use as teaching materials:

BWV 772-786 Two-Part Inventions. These are contrapuntal pieces with two independent voices, which also help develop hand independence in the budding player. I know more than one piano student who can handle a Chopin étude yet balks at the supposedly much simpler Inventions: hand independence is the reason.

BWV 787-801 “Sinfonias”, better known today as the Three-Part Inventions. Here, a third independent voice is introduced, forcing the student to learn to cope with leading two independent voices in one hand (the extra voice may bounce back and forth between both hands). This is excellent preparation for the 3- and 4-voice fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier (see below.) Unlike typical “exercise” pieces, the Two- and Three-part inventions are highly musical if played as such.

BWV 802-805 Four duets (often played on organ as well)

BWV 806-811 English Suites (read: suites of court dance pieces in the English style). Perhaps underrated, but less popular than the

BWV 812-817 French Suites (ditto in the French style).

BWV 818-824 miscellaneous suites

BWV 825-830 Partitas (published as “Clavierübung I”/Keyboard Training, Vol. I)

BWV 831 Overture in the French Style in B minor (published as “Clavierübung II”/Keyboard Training, Vol. II”, bundled with the Italian Concerto BWV 971)

BWV 832 Suite in A major

BWV 833 Prelude and Partita in F

BWV 834-845 misc. single movements

BWV 846-869 Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. A set of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys. While circular temperaments (a.k.a. “well-temperaments”) had started to gain acceptance in Bach’s time, permitting several minor composers to write suites of short pieces in all 24 keys, Bach’s WTC was the first major composition cycle that relied on well-temperament. (The 12-tone equal temperament almost exclusively used on keyboard instruments today is the most ‘universal’ special case. See my previous blog post on the subject.).

BWV 870-893 Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. The second such cycle Bach wrote, in some preludes forward-looking to the Classicist Era.

I forgot which pianist first referred to the two books of the WTC as the “Old Testament” of piano music, and to Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as the “New Testament”. Suffice to say that even Mozart and Beethoven held the WTC in awe — Mozart, not a man known for his modesty, referred to Bach as the only composer he could still learn something from, and Beethoven used to say “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer soll er heissen” — not Brook (=Bach), but Sea should be his name. Beethoven had learned the WTC by heart as a child to the point he was said to be able to transpose individual pieces on the fly to a key of the audience’s choice.

BWV 894-902 misc. preludes and fugues

BWV 903 Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. This work too presupposes well-temperament of some sort. While not the first of its kind, it must have startled audiences of the time. Bach would use chromaticism and modulations (or lack thereof) as expressive devices

BWV 904-9 Fantasia and Fugue pairs

BWV 910-916 Toccatas

BWV 917-923, 931-932 miscellaneous unpaired preludes and fantasias

BWV 924-930 part 1 of Twelve Little Preludes. The short pieces in these collections were intended as beginner teaching material for his children: several of them were later expanded and reworked into Inventions or Preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier

BWV 933-938 Six Little Preludes

BWV 930-942 part2 of Twelve Litte Preludes (BWV 999 completes the set)

BWV 944 Fantasy and Fugue in A minor

BWV 945-962 miscellaneous fugues and fughettas

BWV 963-970 sonatas and sonata movements

BWV 971 Italian Concerto in F major. A keyboard piece that clearly attempts to convey the flavor of an Italian-style concerto for strings and continuo in three movements. Published as one-half of “Keyboard Training, Vol. 2”. Still beloved by audiences.

BWV 972-987 Keyboard arrangements of concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello, Telemann,…

BWV 988 Goldberg Variations (“Keyboard Training, Vol. IV”). An aria with 30 variations, every third variation a canon at intervals rising by degrees from the unison in variation 3 through the ninth in variation 27, with finally a canonical quodlibet in variation 30. This was commissioned by Count Kayserling, a rich diplomat who employed Bach’s former pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg [not Jewish, despite his last name :)] as his private musician. A technically demanding yet intensely musical work that catapulted Glenn Gould to classical superstardom.

BWV 989 Aria and Variations in the Italian Style in A minor

BWV 990 Sarabande in C major (dubious)

BWV 991

BWV 992 Capriccio on the departure of the beloved brother in Bb major. An adolescent work, a lovely bit of program music on Bach’s part. It depicts in different scenes the sadness filling the family, the horn signals of the stagecoach,…

BWV 993 Capriccio in E major

BWV 994 Applicatio (fingering exercise) for W. F. Bach

C. Works for other solo instruments BWV 995-1013

BWV 995-1000 Works for Lute (or guitar)

BWV 1001-1006 Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. These peerless pieces do a unique job of making a single violin sound like multiple instruments, by a combination of double stops, arpeggiated chords, and hinting at multiple voices with snippets of a few notes each. The monumental Chaconne from the Partita in D minor BWV 1004 has been called “the Mount Everest of violin music”, and is often performed in arrangements for guitar, piano, and even full symphony orchestra.

BWV 1007-1012 Sonatas for Solo Cello. The one perennial favorite here is the prelude of the G major sonata.

BWV 1013 Partita for Solo Flute

D. Works for solo instruments with keyboard accompaniment BWV 1014-1040

Sonatas for violin and keyboard BWV 1014-1025

BWV 1026 fugue in G minor for violin and harpsichord

BWV 1027-1029 sonatas for cello and keyboard

BWV 1030-1035 six sonatas for flute and keyboard

E. Concertos for one or more solo instruments and orchestra

BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor

BWV 1042 violin concerto in E major

BWV 1043 “Double Concerto” for two violins in D minor

BWV 1044 Concerto for flute,  violin, and keyboard in A minor

1045 partial 1st movement of a violin concerto in D major

BWV 1046-1051 Six Brandenburg Concertos. These were written for the Margrave of Brandenburg’s court orchestra. Each concerto has a few solo instruments, the parts customized to the abilities of the respective musicians. For example, the 2nd Brandenburg concerto has a demanding trumpet part exploiting the skill of the trumpeter on staff; the 4th Brandenburg concerto includes both a fairly easy viola da gamba solo (today a cello solo) to be played by the nobleman himself, and a more demanding violin part; the sparkling, flashy keyboard solo in the first movement of the 5th concerto — one of the most marvelous expressions of joy in music that I know — was to be played by Bach himself, who as always would conduct from the keyboard.

BWV 1052-1059 concertos for single keyboard and orchestra

BWV 1060-1062 concertos for two keyboards and orchestra

BWV 1063-4 concertos for three keyboards and orchestra

BWV 1065 concerto for four keyboards and orchestra (actually an arrangement by Bach of a Vivaldi concerto)

F. The four orchestral suites BWV 1066-1069

Perennial audience favorites are the 2nd suite in B minor (with the “Badinerie” and “Bourree”) and the 3rd suite in D major, with the famous “Air” that isn’t really on the G string (at least not in the original key). The Procol Harum hit, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” was inspired by it — Gary Brooker tried to play the Air from memory, forgot how it went after two bars, then made up something on the fly — and that became the instrumental basis for the song.

G. Miscellaneous BWV 1070-1078

Miscellaneous works 1070-1071

Canons BWV 1072-1078

H. Bach’s musical testament (my term) BWV 1079-1080

BWV 1079 The Musical Offering. A set of contrapuntal variations on a theme assigned by Frederick II of Prussia (a keen amateur flutist, who employed Bach’s 2nd son C. P. E. Bach as his court music director). Most of the variations are canonical, except for the Ricercar a 3, a three-part fugue that appears to be Bach writing down from memory what he had improvised at the king’s request, and the Ricercar a 6, a six-voice fugue that the king had requested, but Bach felt incapable of improvising to his own musical standard and requested to be allowed to submit later. Incidentally, the instrument Bach improvised the Ricercar a 3 on was an early fortepiano built by Silbermann: if Bach himself didn’t eschew the piano, then why should we?

BWV 1080 The Art Of The Fugue. Effectively Bach teaching a variety of fugue writing and counterpoint techniques by example. The entire long work is in D minor, but to the attentive ear a mesmerizing cathedral of absolute music. The last fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, also titled “Fugue with three subjects” (=triple fugue) in C. P. E. Bach’s hand, breaks off in manuscript shortly after Bach introduces his own name (in German note names) as the third theme. The story told by C. P. E. Bach that his father had a fatal stroke at the point the music breaks off is poignant but ahistorical: as Christoph Wolff explains in “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician”, the work had been completed up to this point some time earlier, but Bach actually was seeking to introduce the main theme of the cycle as the fourth subject (which would have made it Bach’s only quadruple fugue) for the climax of the work. This is a major contrapuntal puzzle and apparently Bach tried to work it out on a missing fragment.

Bach clearly saw BWV1080 as the capstone of his musical legacy, as he made arrangements to have it printed during his lifetime, at great expense to himself. (It was actually published the year after his death.) There are no indications for which instrument(s) it was composed, but it is probably no accident that everything fits in four octaves and is playable by one (very skilled) keyboardist. Many recordings exist, ranging from string quartets via a recorder quartet and organ (Helmut Walcha) to Hermann Scherchen’s full orchestral arrangement: Bach piano interpreters like Grigori Sokolov, Glenn Gould, and Tatiana Nikolayeva have done the work perhaps the most justice.

In honor of New Year’s Day, here is the 1st movement of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, played by the late great Karl Richter and his orchestra. Enjoy!

New Year’s Day post: A brief guide to Bach’s Works Catalogue (BWV), part 1

Gone be the old year and its curses; welcome to the new year and its blessings! A happy, prosperous and healthy 2021 to you all!

At the request of my friend Erik Wingren (seconded by several other friends), here is Part 1 of a brief guide to the BWV catalogue of J. S. Bach’s music.

Why BWV and not Opus? Similar question for Händel, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Liszt,…

Everybody even vaguely familiar with classical music knows about opus numbers: literally “work numbers”, they are usually assigned in order of publication (not typically composition).

Yet they are not used for some classical composers whose preserved output was much more voluminous than what got published during their lifetime. Before the days of modern typesetting techniques — let alone computerized music typesetting using software like Sibelius or Lilypond — music publishing used to face high production costs (in Bach’s day, scores were hand-engraved on expensive copper plates used for printing). Thus, printers or publishers only engaged in it if they were assured a profit, or the production costs were subsidized by the composer or a wealthy patron. Beethoven was the first major composer who saw the bulk of his output published in his lifetime (including his nine symphonies and thirty-two piano sonatas), and even for him there is a catalogue of WoO: Werke ohne Opuszahl, works without an opus number — mostly piano pieces he never got around to publishing but were preserved in manuscript.

But Bach, Händel, Scarlatti (all three born in the same year 1685) all had prolific outputs that were never intended to be printed. For example, Scarlatti wrote 555 keyboard sonatas for his own performance use, and in his capacity as a tutor for Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, later Princess (then Queen) of Spain, herself an avid and skilled harpsichordist. We know them not by opus numbers, but by Kk. numbers, after the catalogue numbers assigned by the 20th-century harpsichordist and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick. Some of Händel’s prolific output for keyboard was printed, but his orchestral works, and the many operas and oratorios he wrote and produced for the stage have primarily been preserved as hand-copied performance scores. A German musicologist named Bernd Baselt compiled and organized a thematic catalogue of all his works, in which they were assigned HWV [Händel Werke Verzeichnis, or catalogue of Händel works] numbers. Following the pattern of the BWV (see below), works are arranged not in chronological order but grouped by type: for example, HWV 1-42 are all the Händel operas known at the time of compilation.

Similarly, there is the Hoboken catalogue for Haydn’s music, the Köchel catalogue for Mozart’s, the Deutsch catalogue for Schubert’s, the Searle catalogue for Liszt’s, and so on. The works of these composers are hence known as, e.g., Haydn’ oratorio The Creation (Die Schöpfung) Hob. XXI:2, Mozart’s Requiem K. 626, Schubert’s four impromptus for piano D. 935, and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor S. 178.

BWV or Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Index/Catalogue of Bach’s Works)

Wolfgang Schmieder was a German music librarian (employed first by Breitkopf and Härtel music publishers, then by the city of Frankfurt, finally by the Goethe University of Frankfurt) who in 1950 published his magnum opus, a systematic catalogue of all the then-known works by Johann Sebastian Bach. Catalogue entries were assigned BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) numbers, by which Bach’s works are universally referred to today. (Sometimes you see S. for Schmieder instead of BWV, but ‘same bride in a different gown’ as we say in Hebrew). The 1950 edition ran from BWV 1 (Cantata “How Bright Shines The Morning Star”/Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern) to BWV 1080 (The Art Of The Fugue); meanwhile, the 1998 edition has added recently discovered and authenticated works through BWV1128. So far in the 21st Century, BWV numbers through 1175 have been assigned.

The catalogue has three appendices:

  • “Anhang I” (appendix 1) for lost works known to have existed (e.g. cantatas for which the text has been preserved; loose bits of music insufficient to even attempt a reconstruction)
  • “Anhang II” for works of dubious authorship (such as the pieces in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, easy pieces written in Bach’s hand but that may have been copied or written down from memory by him for her)
  • “Anhang III” for misattributed works where he was able to find evidence of the real composer

In the meantime, a handful of works with BWV numbers have been conclusively identified as by another composer, but were not retroactively unassigned. For example, the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues for Organ BWV 553-560, a staple of organ students, are now believed to have been composed by Bach’s pupil Johann Tobias Krebs or his son Johann Ludwig Krebs.

On the flip side, a number of works from the Appendices have meanwhile conclusively been identified as Bach’s, and instead been moved to the main BWV list.

So what do we have?

I. VOCAL WORKS, ACCOMPANIED AND A CAPELLA: BWV 1–524

BWV 1 through 197 are church cantatas—multi-movement works for voices and instruments, to be performed in church as part of a religious service. In his capacity as Thomaskantor (music director for the St.-Thomas Church in  Leipzig, as well as vice-principal of the attached secondary school) Bach wrote several annual cycles of these for the Sundays and feast days of the Lutheran ecclesiastical year: these are just the ones for which the vocal and orchestral parts (or, alternatively, a composer’s score) have been preserved.

Some of these cantatas, while performed in church, were written for secular occasions celebrated in church, notably the installation of new town councils at Mühlhausen and Leipzig. (So-called Ratswahlkantaten or Ratswechselkantaten.)

BWV 198 through 224 are mostly secular (“profane”) cantatas written/commissioned for special occasions, such as the “Hunting Cantata” BWV208 (whence the popular ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’), the “Coffee Cantata” Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht BWV 211 (be quiet, don’t chat), the “Peasants Cantata” BWV 212 (with its title in Saxon dialect rather than standard German, Mer Hahn e’ Neue Oberkeet, we have a new authority —in standard German, wir haben eine neue Obrigkeit).

Then follow six motets for church choir, BWV 225-230; BWV 231 has been unassigned as it was meanwhile identified as an alternate version of the second movement of cantata BWV 28.

BWV 232 through 243 are church music for the Latin mass — particularly noteworthy is the High Mass in B minor, BWV 232.

BWV 244 through 247 are musical settings of the Passion story according to the four evangelists: best known is of course the monumental Matthew Passion BWV 244. This was also the work that Felix Mendelssohn staged and was perhaps the first time that the general public of the 19th Century again heard music by Bach that wasn’t written for a keyboard instrument.

BWV 248 is the Christmas Oratorio, another masterful large-scale work.

BWV 249 was used (with different libretti) both as a secular cantata and an Easter Oratorio.

BWV 250–438 are the chorales: a capella four-part (SATB) chorale settings, mostly of Lutheran hymns. [SATB=soprano, alto, tenor, bass]

BWV 439 through BWV 523 are songs or arias (plus a few more chorales), many of them presumably written for his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach, a well-known soprano in her day. (At the Köthen court, half the music budget supposedly went to the salaries of husband and wife Bach, lest they seek employment elsewhere.)

BWV 524 is a Quodlibet (“whatever you like”, a form of vocal canon fantasy in many voices) written for a Bach family wedding.

II. INSTRUMENTAL WORKS

A. Organ Works BWV 525-771

Bach being a virtuoso church organist, he wrote prolifically for the instrument. Many of the pieces have been preserved through manuscript copies by his students.

i. BWV 525-598 are “profane” organ works, i.e., not based on church chorales. These include some of Bach’s greatest compositions for any instrument.

BWV 525-530 are the six trio sonatas: three-movement, three-voice works in which each hand plays one independent voice and the pedals the third. (Being a devout Lutheran and clearly somebody who believed in numerical symbolism, Bach was obsessed with the number three representing the Christian Holy Trinity.) These pieces also lend themselves quite well for chamber performance, by the way — e.g., flute, oboe, and bassoon.

BWV 531-552 are prelude and fugue (or fantasy and fugue) pairs of various descriptions.  In many cases, there is a thematic link between the prelude and the fugue, but sometimes the only link is the key, such as in the mind-blowing Fantasy and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, or the simple Prelude in D minor paired with the magnificent Fugue in BWV 539. (Bach was so proud of that fugue that he also recycled it for lute BWV 1000, and violin, 2nd movement of BWV1001 — both times transposed to G minor to better fit these instruments’ ranges)

Where do I even begin to pick favorites here? BWV 542 would be at the top of my list, followed by the fugue from BWV 539, but it’s an “embarrassment of riches”.

BWV 538 is also known as the “Dorian Toccata and Fugue”, even though it is actually in D minor rather than D dorian — it just happens that the manuscript didn’t have a key signature (which would be a single flat for D minor) but relied on accidentals.

BWV 552, also known as the “St. Anne” for some reason, bookends a set of chorale preludes and fugues, together published in Bach’s lifetime as “Keyboard Training, Vol. 3” (III. Clavierübung). BWV 552 takes the trinity symbolism to the max: in ternary meter, in Eb major (3 flats), with a triple fugue (i.e. with three themes), section lengths in powers of three,… It is a highly rewarding piece of music to listen to (requires great focus and stamina to play well) regardless of numerology or religious allusions.

BWV 551-563 are somewhat spurious shorter pieces.

BWV 564 is the great Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major — really a three-part concerto for organ solo, prefaced by an improvised-sounding opening section that displays Bach’s musical sense of humor as well as his exceptional pedal technique. The word ‘toccata’ comes from the Italian word toccare for ‘to touch’ or ‘to play [a musical instrument]’: it normally referred to a ‘warmup’ piece featuring rapid passagework and other flashy virtuosic devices.

BWV 565, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is of course the one church organ piece everybody who has not been living under a rock has heard. Scholarly consensus now appears to have settled on either a youth work by Bach, or an organ adaptation of a piece originally written for lute or violin. The mature Bach appears to have disowned it, as it contains compositional devices that he by then disparaged in the work of what he called Klavierhusaren (Hussars of the Keyboard Cavalry).

BWV 566 is the Toccata and Fugue in E major; then follow a series of major and minor works. Among those is the Fantasy in G major BWV 572, the “Little” Fugue in G minor BWV 578 (a brass band arrangement of which has also gained popularity), and above all the monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582.

BWV 592-597 are organ arrangements by Bach of concertos for strings and continuo by other composers. BWV 598 is a pedal exercise, possibly by his son C. P. E. Bach.

ii. BWV 599 through 771 are sacred music for organ, chorale preludes and choral variations (i.e. sets of variations on a religious hymn or choral). Those were played in church, usually ahead of the congregation’s singing of the same chorale. These include several sets of works as well as some individual ones.

BWV 599–644 comprise the Little Organ Book, beloved of intermediate-level church organ students to this day. It was clearly written to be within the technical grasp of Bach’s less-advanced students. BWV 639, “I Call Upon Thee, O Lord” is familiar to all science fiction fans as the theme music for the classic movie Solaris, based on the Stanislav Lem novel.

BWV 645-650 are a set of six somewhat more demanding chorales, published in 1748 by a printer named Schübler — hence their collective nickname of “The Six Schübler Chorales”. BWV 645 in particular, “Sleepers Awake” is a perennial listener’s favorite.

BWV 651-668 constitute the Eighteen [Great] Leipzig Chorales, technically demanding pieces written for performance by Bach himself (and perhaps his most advanced students). Some of these pieces even have double pedal parts.

BWV 669–689 are the chorales published as the middle of “Keyboard Training, Vol. 3”, the “meat” in the sandwich between the abovementioned prelude and fugue BWV552.

BWV 690–713 used to be known as the Kirnberger Collection

Miscellaneous chorale settings are gathered in BWV 714-765, some of them probably misattributed to Bach.

BWV 766-771 are sets of variations, each on one Chorale melody

BWV 766 “Christ, der du bist der helle Tag” and 767 “O G-tt, du frommer G-tt” are among Bach’s very earliest compositions that have been preserved, written as a teenager. BWV 768 “Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig“, written around 1705, already is a more mature work. BWV 769, a set of canonical variations on the Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel Hoch da komm Ich her” (I descend from the high heavens) was written as Bach’s admission piece to the Mizler Society of learned musicians and subsequently printed in 1747.

BWV 770 Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, may not be by Bach — though I love playing through that one, and could see it as a youth work like BWV 766 and BWV 767.

Let me say goodbye for now with BWV 564, performed by the late great French organist Michel Chapuis, and with a scrolling score courtesy of “Gerubach”. Happy New Year!

In part 2, I am giving a bird’s eye overview of the rest of the original BWV (771-1080): Bach’s voluminous output for solo keyboard instruments, his works for other chamber instruments and for orchestra, and the two large-scale contrapuntal masterpieces that can be seen as Bach’s musical testament.

COVID19 update, December 30, 2020: Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine approved in the UK; more updates from Israel; link between viral load and severity of disease; Rapid CRISPR-based tests coming

(1) The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is now approved for use in the UK. This is good news in a number of respects: it can be manufactured cheaply in the UK itself and only requires conventional refrigerators (not even freezers). [Addendum: this makes it especially attractive for countries like India, that not just couldn’t afford to acquire Pfizer or Moderna vaccines in the quantities required, but can’t realistically deploying the low-temperature supply chain required.]

The immunisation campaign will now shift to giving as many people as possible their first dose of vaccine with a second dose following within that period.

When the Pfizer-BioNTech jab rollout began, the aim was to give the second dose after three weeks.

But based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the aim now is to give as many vulnerable people some protection from Covid-19, irrespective of the jab they are given.

The Oxford vaccine is easier to store and distribute, as it can be kept at normal fridge temperature unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech jab that has to be kept at -70C.

There is also more confidence about supply as it is UK-made, whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech jab has to be shipped in from Belgium.

The article also explains that in effect, it seems the UK will be trying to maximize the number of people that will get at least one dose of the vaccine, the idea being that more will be available a few months down the line. A source in Belgium told me they are planning the same thing there.

Below is the UK priority schedule:

(2) A few more updates from Israel, which appears to be vaccinating about 150,000 people per day now (that’s several % per day of the eligible groups)

  • Times of Israel editor-in-chief David Horowitz movingly describes the experiences of himself and his parents getting vaccinated (in Jerusalem)
  • An insider told me that some time ago, the TEVA pharmaceutical company built a somewhat grandiose logistical center in Shoham, pretty much next door to the airport. This includes a large capacity in REVCO low-temperature storage, much of it sitting empty. Right now, this turns out to be serendipitous, as this facility is now the national distribution hub for the vaccines.
  • A man age 88, “with multiple complex health issues”, collapsed hours after receiving the vaccine. Doctors are confident the vaccine was not the culprit, however.
  • Veteran Arab affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh reports that in many Arab locales, people are wary of the vaccine — and as a result, vaccination rate in the Arab sector is much lower than in the Jewish sector. Nevertheless, there are exceptions — such as the town of Umm al-Fahm, whose mayor Umm al-Fahem “Mayor Samir Mahamed said that rumors circulating on social media and WhatsApp have scared many Arabs. ‘Unfortunately, some people are posting incorrect information and fake news about the vaccination,’ he told the Post, noting that 55% of Umm el-Fahm residents over the age of 60 have received the vaccine. ‘They are scaring the people, and that’s why we are waging a campaign to raise awareness regarding the importance of receiving the vaccine.'” Galilee Medical Center director. Prof. Masad Barḥoum, points out that vaccination centers in many Arab communities are empty — and hence Jews travel to Arab villages to get vaccinated without a wait.
  • While in some locations, the commonsense decision was made to use leftover defrosted vaccine shots also for not-yet-eligible person rather than discard them (Pfizer mRNA vaccines have to be used within 6 hours, as the mRNA vaccine is so temperature-sensitive), in other places, several hundred of the precious doses were discarded unused

I would suggest that anybody sitting on the fence about the effectiveness of the vaccine watch very carefully the news coming out of Israel over the next weeks, as we are likely to become the first country where most of the vulnerable population groups will have been vaccinated. If the vaccine is as effective on the ‘battlefield’ as it was doing clinical trials, we should see a precipitous drop in COVID19 mortality 3-4 weeks from now.

(3) More evidence that viral load associated with severity of disease from these two papers:

https://doi.org/10.1093/ofid/ofaa535 and http://doi.org/10.7555/JBR.34.20200110

From a NYTimes write-up in popular language: ““A [RT-PCR] test is performed in “cycles,” each doubling the amount of viral genetic material originally drawn from the patient’s sample. The higher the initial viral load, the fewer cycles the test needs to find genetic material and produce a signal.[…] the Nevada Department of Public Health found an average Ct value of 23.4 in people who died from Covid-19, compared with 27.5 in those who survived their illnesses. People who were asymptomatic had an average value of 29.6, suggesting they carried much less virus than the other two groups. […] Most manufacturers conservatively set their machine’s thresholds for diagnosis from 35 to 40 […]”

(4) Miscellaneous updates:

COVID19 update, December 29, 2020: Belgium starts vaccination; over 500,000 vaccinated in Israel so far; China arrests author of Wuhan Diaries; asymptomatic transmission rare to nonexistent?

Very busy in day job and finishing a novella, so now that I finally have some time, here is a long update.

(1) De Standaard reports (in Dutch) that a 96-year old man named Jos Hermans yesterday morning was the first to get vaccinated there. I rang up one of my medical contacts there and was told that the supply of Pfizer vaccines is quite limited, and that they are having great hopes for the locally developed, single-shot, Janssen vaccine. Also that, should Janssen not be approved soon, that they are seriously considering giving just a single dose of Pfizer and Moderna, under the assumption that even that would be enough for 3 months protection, by which time there should not be further shortages.

(2) Meanwhile, Israel has now given first doses of Pfizer to over half a million people, the highest proportion of the population in the world (other than perhaps the city-state of Bahrain). From the JPost report:

Some 495,000 Israelis were vaccinated as of Tuesday morning, just nine days into the vaccination campaign, while 407,285 Israelis had been confirmed as infected with the virus since the beginning of the outbreak. More than 115,000 Israelis were vaccinated on Monday alone. A quarter of all 70- to 79-year-olds in Israel were vaccinated against the virus as of Tuesday morning, while 20% of Israelis in their 60’s, 18% of citizens in their 80’s and 11% of citizens 90-years-old and older were vaccinated as well. Some 1,765 Israelis under the age of 20 were vaccinated as well as of Tuesday morning, with 12 children under the age of 10 vaccinated despite regulations banning children under the age of 16 from receiving the vaccination.

And yes, this is completely voluntary — demand is overwhelming even without any mandate. The Times of Israel notes that teachers will be the next group to get access to the vaccine, following the 60+ age bracket and at-risk patients. It continues:

Provided Israel maintains this week’s pace of over 100,000 inoculations a day, it will see a dramatic easing of the pandemic crisis next month, said Eran Segal, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who has been mapping and analyzing the impact of COVID-19. “In two to three weeks, we’ll start to see a very significant fall in serious cases among the elderly and at-risk groups, and after that, of course, a reduction in fatalities.

Healthy people under 60, at present not eligible for the vaccine, account for just 7.5% of our mortality: according to this status page from the Clalit HMO. I am reproducing the most relevant table here:

Left=percentage of dead; middle=number of dead; right=age bracket; bottom row=totals

Don’t forget that the infection fatality rate is exponentially dependent on age, so In this manner, Israel will become the first major country-wide test case.

A nontrivial number of our friends and acquaintances (remember, those under 60 are not eligible at present) have so far gotten the jab. Many reported some fatigue on the first day, with some tenderness at the injection site persisting on the 2nd day (that was the case with Mrs. Arbel); others reported just some tenderness; yet others (such as our former department chair) no symptoms at all.

Major adverse events so far, out of half a million shots? One (1) man age 49, with a known allergy (to penicillin), went into anaphylactic shock but recovered following treatment (presumably with epinephrin) — I do wonder why he even got the shot at all. How often does this happen for “garden-variety” vaccinations? According to this 2016 paper in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2015.07.048

“We identified 33 confirmed vaccine-triggered anaphylaxis cases that occurred after 25,173,965 vaccine doses. The rate of anaphylaxis was 1.31 (95% CI, 0.90-1.84) per million vaccine doses. The incidence did not vary significantly by age, and there was a nonsignificant female predominance. Vaccine-specific rates included 1.35 (95% CI, 0.65-2.47) per million doses for inactivated trivalent influenza vaccine (10 cases, 7,434,628 doses given alone) and 1.83 (95% CI, 0.22-6.63) per million doses for inactivated monovalent influenza vaccine (2 cases, 1,090,279 doses given alone).

McNeil et al., “Risk of anaphylaxis after vaccination in children and adults”, J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2016 Mar; 137(3): 868–878.

In other words, one anaphylaxis per half-million patients is par for the course for vaccines.

In a separate incident, a 75-year old cardiac patient in Beit-Shean got a fatal heart attack 2 hours after the shot. He had waited half an hour at the clinic to rule out anaphylactic shock, then gone home. Initial investigation concluded that the event was unrelated to the vaccination, but a further investigation is in progress. Such fragile patients actually raise a medical conundrum: do you vaccinate them despite nonzero risk because their survival chances in case they catch COVID are slim — or do you precisely avoid stressing their labile systems with a vaccine?

I know a number of excitable people here have “discovered” that there were two dead among the 15,000 people who got Pfizer in the phase III clinical trial; what the said “discoverers” forget to mention are the four dead among the control group who were injected placebos. (Of course, nobody who understands statistics will claim that the placebo is twice as dangerous as the vaccine — those are the pitfalls of statistics of rare events. The most plausible explanation, of course, is that all six died natural deaths unrelated to either the vaccine or the placebo.)

Meanwhile, the homegrown Brilife vaccine (like Oxford/AstraZeneca a more conventional type) is in phase 2 trial; the developers from the Israel Institute for Biological Research are now worried that there won’t be enough healthy, unvaccinated people in Israel once they received approval for the phase 3 trial (which would require at least 15,000 people, preferably again that many as controls).

(3) There are times where I wonder if the US public health authorities would do a better job of alienating the public and engendering public distrust if they actively worked at it. After the forced retirement of Dr. Birx who exempted herself from her own social distancing recommendations, now we have Dr. Fauci basically justifying his own “telling lies in the service of a higher truth” (and yes, treating the American public like 5-year olds). Well, don’t be surprised then if you get outbursts like this in response to vaccination advice.

I am not going to pretend the Israeli public health authorities did everything perfectly. But by and large, they treated the public like adults and communicated on the level, without zig-zag course reversals for political expediency or in the name of political correctness.

(4) Miscellaneous:

  • In the PRC, CCP found nothing better than to slap a 4-year prison sentence on citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who posted early reporting from Wuhan on YouTube. She has been force-fed while on a hunger strike during her pretrial arrest. The EU and the US have both called for her release. Wait for the CCP’s many turtle-boysuseful idiots in the Western media to whitewash this perversion of justice.
  • Jordan Schachtel is not impressed by the dubious evidence for “70% greater infectivity” of the new UK strain.
  • (Hat tip: multiple) A recently published meta-analysis of household transmission appears to indicate that asymptomatic transmission is quite rare if it exists at all: the “secondary attack rate” is 0.7%, but with the 95% confidence interval including zero. For comparison, the symptomatic rate is 18.0%, the 95% CI being 14.2%-22.1%
  • And (hat tip: Patrick R.) Pioneering computational biochemist (Nobel Laureate 2013) Mike Levitt resolves the conundrum of large(-sih) COVID19 mortality and much smaller “excess mortality” as follows: “now clear that COVID19 displaces Influenza due to viral competition for a limited pool [of] susceptible people. It has nothing to do with masks or hygiene as evidenced by winter flu in East Asia. Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.”

COVID19 update, Christmas Eve edition: vaccination sitrep from Israel

(1) Israel’s vaccination rollout started last Sunday. At this point, it focuses on age 60 and over (voluntary), plus medical personnel (somewhat less voluntary). As I explained in my previous post, the basic philosophy here is to quickly vaccinate the most vulnerable, in order to get maximum mortality mitigation for minimum vaccine doses.

As Mrs. Arbel is a few years older than me and hence qualified for the shot, she signed up, and today was her appointment. The first day the phone switchboard of our HMO crashed (all Israelis have to be enrolled in one of four licensed HMOs, as part of our socialized medicine system), but eventually she got through to a human and got an appointment for today. Meanwhile, the website and app of the HMO have been updated, and under “schedule appointment” is now a purple “Corona Vaccine” button if you are in the right age bracket.

The main purpose of the appointments is to determine in advance how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine to thaw out from -70°C storage prepare: the great temperature sensitivity of mRNA vaccines means that any vaccine not administered within 6h of thawing out and dilution needs to be discarded.

At any rate, we showed up at the vaccination site (an annex to the HMO clinic) about half an hour ahead of the scheduled time. Outside, one employee verified Mrs.’s details against the appointment list and the HMO’s database, while another administered a brief questionnaire: Are you currently ill? Do you have a cough or a temperature in excess of 38.5°C (about 101°F)? Have you ever had an allergic reaction against any vaccine? Were you administered any other vaccine in the past two weeks? (I had a flu shot, so I would have had to wait anyway.) I do not recall being asked about immune system conditions, but these would presumably have thrown up a red flag in the HMO’s database.

Check-in being done, the login clerk signed off on the questionnaire form and handed it to Mrs., and we were ushered inside into the waiting room. About 8 people were waiting, but turnover was very rapid. Within just a minute or two, Mrs. was called into the treatment room and got her shot.

and yes, the CDC is fine with gloveless administration (hat tip: Mrs. Arbel)
the lot expiration date, not in this picture, is March 2021 — of course, only in an ultracold storage and transport chain

Afterward, we were asked to wait for 15 minutes to rule out anaphylactic shock: we elected to wait outside. As we did so, a few walkups showed up without appointment: they were accommodated by the login clerk making impromptu appointments using the HMO’s phone app.

Mrs. noticed no side effects so far other than some mild swelling at the injection site, “much less than from a flu shot” (which she has been getting every year for the past three decades). Several older friends and acquaintances, who went in for their shots yesterday and today, reported similar experiences. One distant relative, a nurse, said she felt tired after her shot, but wasn’t sure whether it was from the vaccine or from a 12-hour shift at the hospital.

One friend, who went in on the first day, did notice that when seniors were brought in by their ‘Filipinit’ [live-in caregiver, often from the Philippines] at a polyclinic that didn’t look too busy, the caregiver was also offered the shot despite clearly not being over 60 (and accepted it): the extremely short shelf-life of the diluted vaccine may (sensibly) induce personnel to vaccinate people that otherwise wouldn’t be entitled yet, rather than let the precious shots go to waste.

(2) Quick updates:

  • sadly, my country has decided on a third (!) lockdown for two weeks, starting Sunday night, following an escalation in severe cases in hospital. By the time it ends, the most vulnerable population group should be up to their 2nd vaccine shots.
    With typical Jewish/Israeli black humor, the following parody on the Passover song Echad mi yode`a is making the rounds (hat tip: JCS):
    Arba, mi yodea? Arba, ani yodea. Arba bechirot, shlosha segarim, shtei rashei memshala [variant: shnei manot chisun], echad El-heinu, she-yishmor aleinu mi-ha-shamayim. [Who knows four? I know four: four elections, three lockdowns, two co-prime ministers [variant: two vaccine doses], one G-d, may He guard over us from the Heavens.]
  • (Hat tip: Mrs. Arbel.) Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Kariko was unable to sustain an academic career in the US because all of her grant applications for mRNA therapy were shot down. Eventually she moved to the biotech industry, and is now a VP of BioNTech (the partner company of Pfizer for the mRNA-based COVID19 vaccine).

(3) To my Christian readers of the Western Communion, have a merry and healthy Christmas.

Secular humanists and others, have a merry Newtonmas 🙂

COVID19 update, Winter Solstice edition: new strain in the UK, border closures; deep-dive into vaccines. [UPDATE: a little vaccine for the most vulnerable goes a long way]

There have been breathless media reports about a new strain of COVID in the UK. John Campbell gives some context.

For background: the UK, perhaps more than any other country, has been doing genomic analysis of actual viral samples. There are meanwhile over 1,100 “mutants” of the virus around, but most of these mutations amount to nothing — single amino acid substitutions or deletions in noncritical places. Beginning in September, however, a new strain was picked up that has about 17 changes to the spike protein, and meanwhile accounts for about 60% of infectivity in Greater London and in Kent.

Prof. Jacob Moran-Gilad from Ben-Gurion U.:

“The British are currently the world leaders in their rate of genetic sequencing for COVID-19 patient samples. That’s why they’re the ones that find these things. It’s very likely that what we are seeing in Britain is just the tip of the iceberg. There are most likely a lot of mutations we don’t yet know about because most of the world doesn’t consistently survey and track the mutation,” he said.

Mind you, evolutionary selection of viruses is for greater virulence (infectivity) and milder morbidity and mortality. So I would not be surprised if this strain will drive out other strains of the virus through competitive infection, but I would be extremely surprised if this strain turned out to have a higher infection fatality rate than the original — you could normally expect it to go down.

Dr. Campbell assumes that the change will not affect the efficacy of the vaccine — virologists I’ve talked to here tell me basically the same.

But other countries are not taking chances, and Belgium, Netherlands, Bulgaria,… Israel have all closed their borders to UK citizens for now, until there is a better idea what is going on. London and Kent have also been put under an internal travel advisory.

Speaking of vaccines, Israel kicked off its vaccination effort last Saturday night, with the PM and senior ministers getting jabs on live TV. There will not be a vaccine mandate here, but as of Sunday morning, you can make appointments with the major HMOs for the Pfizer vaccine if you are either medical personnel or over the age of 60. (You are also given a followup appointment for the 2nd shot.) The phone switchboard of the Maccabi HMO was down most of Sunday, but eventually we got an appointment. [UPDATE: more here on HMOs being flooded with requests for appointments.]

There have been sporadic reports of allergic reactions, but with 3.5 million doses having been distributed so far (and presumably some non-negligible fraction of these having been administered), this is expected by the law of large numbers alone. There is speculation that they may derive from the polyethylene glycol that is used to encapsulate the mRNA (otherwise it would degrade very quickly): possibly the Moderna vaccine, which got FDA EUA last Friday, may have an advantage there as it uses a different encapsulant.

Dr. Campbell is a big fan of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine which was developed along more traditional lines. It can be produced at much lower per-unit cost and does not require storage and transport infrastructure at -50°C or so. Thus far, it has yet to obtain approval. Our own Brilife is still stuck in Phase II/III trials.

Finally, here is Dr. Seheult with a deep dive into RNA vaccines for COVID19, interviewing a leading researcher in the area.

Stay tuned for further updates.

UPDATE: a little vaccine, for the most vulnerable, goes a long way (via Instapundit)

As I’ve covered here previously, infection fatality rate is exponentially dependent on age. That preprint has meanwhile been published in the European Journal of Epidemiology: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10654-020-00698-1. Moneygraf of the paper (IFR=infection fatality rate, in percent):

Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday

Two and a half centuries ago, one of the transcendent geniuses of classical music was born at in this house at Bonngasse 20 in Bonn, then the seat of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.

Beethoven’s birth house

We do not know exactly which day it was, but we do know he was baptized on December 17, 1770: the baptism register with his Taufeintrag (baptism entry) is kept at the Bonn city archives. The custom in the city was to baptize within 24 hours after birth: Beethoven himself regarded December 16 as his birthday.

Beethoven’s paternal family is actually Flemish (hence the Dutch prefix “van”): bearers of the family name can still be found in the phone books of Mechelen/Malines and Leuven/Louvain. They were musicians and instrument makers: one Lodewijk/Louis/Ludwig van Beethoven, the great composer’s namesake grandfather, went to Bonn to find employment (as a bass singer) at the palace. His son Johann also found employment there, but found his career thwarted, possibly also through his excessive love of the bottle. He however quickly realized little Ludwig’s off-the-scale musical gifts, and through a grueling regimen of tutoring on keyboard and violin tried to turn him into the new Mozart (who had initially become famous as a traveling child prodigy virtuoso, with his father as his manager). He was successful as a performer (that was a sine qua non for composers of the day), but his greatest fame was to be elsewhere.

That path began at age ten, when Christian G. Neefe started teaching him composition. Already at age 13, his first published composition was printed: a set of keyboard variations, WoO 63, and shortly later a set of three piano sonatas WoO 47 [WoO=Werk ohne Opuszahl, work without an opus number] — clearly youth works, but at least one of them the harbinger of great things to come. Initial response was lukewarm, and the budding composer supplemented the family income as a chapel organist at the court, and a violist in the court orchestra—apparently continuing to hone his craft as a composer in the meantime. His general education, such as it was, appears to have been spotty at best: judging from private notes, he would carry out multiplication (when required for calculating bills) by repeated addition. Nevertheless, he appears to have been an avid reader, and many of his readings would inspire later compositions.

After his mother had died, and while his father was busily drinking himself into an early grave, Beethoven traveled to Vienna on a study trip sponsored by his wealthy friend and admirer, Count von Waldstein [cf. the Waldstein Sonata]. There he studied with Haydn (who found his music “too violent”) but also with Salieri (on vocal composition), with Albrechtsberger (on counterpoint), and one Schuppanzigh (violin). When Haydn left for London, Beethoven elected to stay in Vienna [Bonn would soon fall to French troops] where he was starting to gather a circle of admirers. The rest is (fascinating) musical history: a good place to start reading is Jan Swofford’s biography.

I still vividly remember the first time, as a young child, I heard an entire long-form Beethoven composition — the famous Fifth Symphony, Op. 67. I had heard classical music before — Tchaikovsky wonderfully inventive First Piano Concerto is the first classical piece I consciously remember, and there had been Mozart, Verdi — but I had never heard something like this. I lacked the words to describe it, but aside from its emotional sweep, what struck me most was its incredible unity of purpose, and the inexhaustible inventiveness with which he kept transforming the basic thematic material in ever-changing, always engaging ways. From then on I had a youthful obsession with Beethoven, who to this day remains my second favorite composer after J. S. Bach [whom I had yet to truly discover]. I was delighted, actually, to discover that even such short, amateur-friendly piano works as the Bagatelles have some hallmarks of vintage Beethoven: not just the plasticity with which he handles thematic material, but also the rhythmic playfulness and textural variation.

Beethoven at his perkiest and funniest

And Beethoven at his most nocturnal and spiritual

Beethoven at his most obsessive:

And from the same symphony, at his most sublime

When this latter symphony was performed for the first time, Beethoven was so profoundly deaf that he could hear neither the performance (except in his mind) nor the thundering applause afterward —and had to be turned around to see the standing ovation. That must rank among the most poignant moments in music history. And yet, nearly two hundred year after its composition, it still has the power to move audiences deeply.

Musik [ist] höhere Offenbarung als alle Weisheit und Philosophie. [Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.] — Ludwig van Beethoven

UPDATE: veteran producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato on Beethoven’s struggles with deafness

UPDATE2: “masgramondou” sent this meme:

Election update: SCOTUS passes on Texas suit; the moth flies toward the flame

So the Texas lawsuit, with 18 or 19 states joining in with amicus curia briefs, was declined by SCOTUS in a 7-2 decision. Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy analyzes the decision — or rather the decision to say “pass” on the hot potato.

This is a black day for democracy, no two ways about it. I personally am virtually certain that #GrandTheftElection2020 happened — although some of us may differ about by which method. There is no doubt that widespread mail-in balloting, combined with the decisions of certain states to remove all safeguards for ballot validity verification, opened the barn doors wide.

Glenn Reynolds comments:

The statement that Texas lacks standing would seem to implicitly overrule Massachusetts v. EPA, a case that found expanded standing for states, though in the “Climate Change” context. But then, I’ve told my students that I doubt that case stood for more than climate change hysteria’s ability to influence John Roberts Anthony Kennedy.

The appeal of dismissing on standing grounds, of course, is that the Court won’t have to deal with any of the factual allegations.

To be fair, SCOTUS of course found itself in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. If it heard the case — which likely would last until past January 20 — it would be accused of fanning the flames no matter how it ruled. So instead it chose to declare itself incompetent. (For non-American readers: it is important to realize, as Bryan Preston explained, that US Presidential elections are effectively not a single federal election at all but 50 concurrent elections in every state.)

From my distant perch, I do not see this ever ending well at all. The US — the country of my beloved spouse — is on the brink of the second greatest crisis in its existence, possibly even the greatest. I hope and pray to be wrong. I fear to be right.

Alexander Scriabin’s foreboding piano piece “Toward The Flame”