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Santa Claus, Liquefied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mannesmann, Prosecutorial Appeals, and the Search for Truth

Before I write a gigantic comment on the Mannesmann case, I just want to comment on the fact that my blog seems to have been mentioned on the pages of a university website.  I admit, it is true that I sometimes teach at a German university.  My colleagues are nice, dedicated people who tolerate my peculiarities.  They gave me a tiny little office and a tiny little salary, and I teach the students a few of the things I know.

Nevertheless, I grew up in Texas, where keeping your distance from institutions is regarded as necessary.  I want to make sure everyone understands that this blog is entirely my own private creation, and has nothing whatsoever to do with any university or other institution.  Nobody has any control or influence over what I say here except me.

Now enough with the legal disclaimers and declarations of independence.  Yesterday, the Bundesgerichtshof (sort of like the U.S. Supreme Court) did something interesting -- they acted on an appeal by a prosecutor an reversed an acquittal in the trial court.  I thought this was worth a quick pre-holiday comment, since a "prosecutorial appeal" like this is impossible under American law.

Continue reading "Mannesmann, Prosecutorial Appeals, and the Search for Truth" »


That "Healthy Folkish Feeling"

Today on "Daily Discussion," the daily call-in show on my local public radio this morning, they discussed whether it was acceptable for German police and officials to rely on information that might have been obtained through torture, as German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schaeble suggested on Sunday.  Most of the callers are saying soothing, nice things about how this raises serious questions, perhaps it's wrong, of course German police and officials must never be permitted to use torture themselves, etc.

Then a guy called up who had a rather different perspective. " We're not tough enough with all these damned criminals, he said.  I don't care what the police have to do, 'cause after all the criminals sure weren't respecting the law.  The only reason we don't get tough with criminals is because a bunch of weenie lawyers make all the rules, and those lawyers get all their common sense trained out of them in law school... "  I'm sure you can imagine the rest yourself.

The funny thing, though, is that this caller used a rather odd phrase for "common sense."  He said gesundes Volksempfinden, (literally "healthy folk-feeling").

Continue reading "That "Healthy Folkish Feeling"" »


An Exhausting Evening with Karl Kraus

Volume Two of an English-language biography of the Austrian bellelettrist Karl Kraus has appeared.  Here is a section of a review of the biography by George Steiner:

Karl Kraus’s public readings quickly became legendary. They were integral to his persona and mission. They were dramatic in the highest degree, Kraus’s voice and mien miming the characters in the plays that he “enacted”. Among Shakespearean texts, he privileged Timon, as Karl Marx had done. His recitals of the great Austrian comic playwright Nestroy excelled anything the actual theatre could offer. He read formidably from his own works. Generations of auditors listened spellbound. Accounts of these dramas of the intellect, of these satyr-plays and verbal operettas, amount to a secondary literature of their own. The most eloquent report is Elias Canetti’s. He attended approximately one hundred of these soir饳, often mesmerized: “A hall that was packed to the aisles fell under the sway of a voice whose influence persisted even when it fell silent, but the dynamics of such an auditorium can no more be described than the Wild Hunt of ancient legend”.

At the end of the largely favorable review, Steiner notes: "Will this devoted monument to Kraus induce English-speaking readers to attempt his works (attention is growing in France)? If so, the debt to [author] Edward Timms will be considerable."  I had never heard of Karl Kraus before I came here, and assumed he was largely unknown in the English-speaking world.  I have the Karl-Kraus-Lesebuch, and find it fascinating, although I am surely not understanding many levels of wordplay and cultural context.  I wonder if it's possible to bring the Baroque vituperation of Kraus into English?  Perhaps I'll try in the coming weeks...


"Innocent" Victims and Stranger Homicides

First, sorry about the "service interruption."  I like the typepad service, but it does have a tendency to crash now and then.  I think everything's up and running now.

Before I move on to happier topics, I thought I'd use one last post just to take up a point made by a commenter nobiz, who responded to my post about the Williams case:

A trifle, albeit one with implications. I quote: "Williams committed four horrifying murders of innocent victims".  I just can't think of guilty victims. Maybe it was just a redundancy, but there is no point opposing death penalty when implicating degrees of "not deserving to be victim". Either he committed murders, or he didn't. Either a country commits murders, or it doesn't. Is there anywhere a middle way?

What I meant by "innocent" victims was that these were people who were working in a convenience store (1 victim), and three people who ran a hotel (a couple and their daughter).  These people weren't breaking the law, weren't doing anything extremely risky, and did nothing to provoke their deaths.  That's what I meant by innocent.

But raises another issue that is worth mentioning -- an important which that is almost never mentioned in German press coverage of the death penalty, and which helps explain differences in attitude toward the death penalty. 

Take, for instance, four drug dealers, human-smugglers or gangsters who are murdered.  Nothing excuses killing, but in the latter case, the victims were breaking the law, knew they were doing something extremely risky.  These crimes don't provoke the same reaction in society, because everyone can reduce their risk of being murdered for these reasons by not becoming a mobster, drug-dealer, or human smuggler. 

Continue reading ""Innocent" Victims and Stranger Homicides" »


"It's Herpeling"

Last weekend, Deutschland Radio Kultur broadcast a documentary about a man named Rainer Herpel called The Explorer of Bad Ems.  The webpage is here (German).  I'll translate the first few lines for English-speaking readers:

At the beginning of the 1970s, Rainer Herpel stopped talking.  He was 21.  He dropped out and turned inwards.  He withdrew from the world, and moved silently about his parent's home and the small town he lived in.  It was a time in which radical groups were the talk of the nation, alternative dreams bloomed, and drugs became respectable. 

He remained mute for 30 years.  That fact and his extraordinary lifestyle -- he wore earmuffs, military clothes, and a chinese parasol -- hit the small town of Bad Ems like an explosion.  What makes this outsider tick?  What drove the "General of Ems" into silence?  Two years ago, Herpel resumed talking, displayed his hand-painted oil paintings, and says "Silence is peace for the soul."

Continue reading ""It's Herpeling"" »


A Wave of Self-Righteous Moral Outrage Sweeps Europe! Again!

Below is a link to an Talking Points Memo post about the case of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, but before that, I thought I'd deliver a little background.  Once again, let me make it clear at the outset: I oppose the death penalty, and so I certainly would have been happy to see Williams get clemency.  But the European outrage on this subject overblown.  I was reading an article by Bianca Jagger about the Williams case yesterday in the left-wing taz newspaper, andI literally burst out laughing several times at her pompous self-importance.

Williams' execution was controversial in the United States, but not very.  Let me explain why.  Most people, including those on the moderate left, considered the decision whether to grant Williams clemency to be within Gov. Schwarzenegger's scope of judgment.  The arguments Schwarzenegger used to deny clemency were accepted by most observers, because they're not irrational.  Read them carefully.  Plenty of Europeans (this example is an editorial in German) believe they can read Schwarzenegger's mind, and now explain that he denied clemency only out of 'cowardice' or 'political pressure.'  Like all attempts at mind-reading, these are pure speculation. Schwarzenegger explains why he denied clemency in the memo I linked to above.  I would have given Williams clemency, but Schwarzenegger had his reasons. Schwarzenegger's main point was that Williams committed four horrifying murders of innocent victims (including three fellow racial minorities), and his claim of redemption rang hollow, given that he would not confess his guilt.

Of course, this puts Williams in the uncomfortable position of having to either acknowledge his guilt (which might have affected his legal appeals) or maintain his innocence, in which case he would reduce his chances of clemency.  But this seems to be a cruel dilemma only if Williams actually was innocent.  If he committed the murders, it's hardly unfair to expect him to confess that fact if we are going to take his claims of redemption seriously.

Continue reading "A Wave of Self-Righteous Moral Outrage Sweeps Europe! Again!" »


German Social Democracy Redux

Well, the commenters seem unconvinced by my brainstorm, and make many good points that I hadn't really thought of.  There's also this, from a review of a book by Tony Judt about modern Europe:

Western Europe became a place of social planning, nationalized economies, and strong states not because democratic socialism was in the Continental genes but because there were no reserves of private capital and few viable non-governmental institutions around to put the world back together again. The “European model,” Judt says, was mostly an accident. There was no great political vision; necessity and pragmatism ruled the day. As [Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in 1947], you cannot eat ideology. A lot of what Americans take to be traditionally European is simply an artifact of the postwar scramble for survival—for example, national branding.

Continue reading "German Social Democracy Redux" »


Consider the Bourgeoisie shocked

The magisterial diva Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who defined the role of the Marschallin in the 1957 Karajan production of Der Rosenkavalier, is not pleased with what she's seen at the opera lately:

What I hear and have seen -- in Vienna, I'm told, there was recently a production of "Cosi fan tutte" in which all the roles were played by gay men -- leaves me with only one option, to run away, and look to the Japanese and Chinese for example.  They have a sense for the music and not the whole production "magic" that we see around us.  The "magic" -- perhaps at my age I might be allowed to use some sharp words -- is a criminal delusion.  It's really a sickness which will one day destroy German art, of that I am certain.  In fact, very soon.  I myself had to run out of the theater recently during the Salzburg festival -- I could just barely last until the intermission. 

[FAS, 4 December, p. 27]