Who Protects me from Protectron?

At 6  this morning my wife woke me up: “The alarm system is making noises!” Sure enough, the little display on the box indicated that the smoke alarm in the basement needed new batteries. No problem. For years we have been clients of Protectron, a country wide alarm monitoring service; they stay on guard for me! I could understand why they wouldn’t call me that early to change the batteries.

But by 9 o’clock I was ready. I placed the ladder under the faulty sensor and attempted to call the company that I was going to interfere with the security system (that’s what you are supposed to do!). I dialed and waited . . . Yes, I know, I am important to the company, they told me that at least 10 times until the system disconnected me with an unpleasant snarl. So I called again and waited . . .  This time I gave up after 15 minutes. OK, so it is their problem if my system triggers an alarm. I took down the sensor, installed the new batteries and put the sensor back in place. My alarm box was protesting vigorously stating “Fire Trouble”. It stands to reason that something equivalent was happening in Protectron’s central monitoring station. What did not happen, however, was a call from Protectron to inquire about this trouble. I must say though, a week earlier I had promptly received a notification from Protectron that they were going to raise my monitoring fee by 15% in order to further improve the quality of their service.

I am asking myself now, what am I actually getting for the money if the guards are asleep. And who is guarding the guards?

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The ASUS Blues

I have a new computer, and I love it. It is an ASUS Zenbook UX31E. It is the notebook I always dreamed of. It is beautiful, light, capable,runs almost seven hours on one battery charge, and sings like a nightingale. It flatters the Mac Book Air by imitation. But that’s all right with me: there are some technical reasons why I prefer a Windows machine over an Apple descendant.

But when I did the research to choose a product that would match my needs, I was surprised about the ambivalence towards ASUS products that I found in various professional product reviews. True, early pre-roll-out models had some significant flaws, but those were remedied, once the Zenbook hit the market. I didn’t initially understand why reviewers were so cool towards what appeared to be a fantastic machine.

But now I do understand. It is not so much the product, as it is the organisation that stands behind it – or doesn’t! I had a simple need for some international ASUS parts that were in production and being delivered routinely in other countries. I first called the national ASUS store to ask for prices and to order. The clerk told me that they don’t stock these parts. I then asked if they could be ordered. The answer was a categorical “NO”! Next, I wrote to the support address; at least, I tried to. Instead, I was presented with an extremely user-unfriendly form which reset itself, whenever the next field was filled in, so you had to start all over again. Two days later I received a compressed, unformatted excerpt of my original message with the laconic comment: call the store. It took me two more iterations before I realized that there was system to the madness: the whole purpose was to keep customers from asking for anything out of the ordinary.

ASUS had made its name largely by producing motherboards for  generic desktop computers. They are relatively new in the business of primary consumer products. But if ASUS, and its CEO Jonney Shih want to succeed in competition with such masters as Apple, it doesn’t suffice that they just imitate the products, they also have to match their service. It may just be an issue of culture. What works in Taiwan will probably not work for western markets in the long run. But, hey, globalisation means that you have to compete along the whole front!

Posted in Computing, Corporate Greed | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A low-guilt potato salad

The other day  I attended a tribal pot-luck picnic. The culinary low was the potato salad – a medley of mashed potato and mayonnaise, yuk! My dream potato salad is creamy with thin slices of recognizeable potato that melt on your tongue with a cholesterol content akin to the interest rate on Canada Savings Bonds. I will let you in on the secret but first the abstract:

  • steamed, not boiled,
  • low fat yoghurt, not Hellmann’s.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs of mid-sized Yukon Gold potatoes,
  • 2 cups of chicken stock (1 cube and boiling water),
  • 4 tbsp white (wine) vinegar,
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard,
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil,
  • 2 tbsp fat free yoghurt,
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped,
  • 2 dill pickles, finely chopped,
  • pepper and salt to taste.

Before we get our hands dirty, let me make a few editorial comments: performing this potato salad is not for the faint-of-heart. Although the actual work takes maybe half an hour, it will still keep you busy for the better part of a day. Plan to prepare it the day before you want to serve it. The other novelty, for many chefs, is ‘steaming’  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steaming). Steaming is well worthwhile incorporating into your set of cooking skills. You, therefore, need steaming implements, be they state-of-the-art or improvised, plus a bowl that can take some heat, a cutting board and a very sharp knife.

Fill the bowl with cold water; peel the potatoes and drop them in the bowl. Raw potato by raw potato, cut them into thin slices maybe 1/8″ thick and drop them back into the bowl.

Start your steamer with about 2″ of water in the boiler and the drained potato slices in the basket. Put on the lid and steam for 25 minutes (20 minutes if you like ‘al dente’). Provide enough heat for a steady curl of steam to escape from the pot. Wash out the bowl, put in the bouillon cube and add 2 cups of boiling water, timed such that the stock is ready when the potatoes are. Carefully transfer the potato slices back into the hot stock, so it just covers the potatoes and let them soak in the stock, until it has totally cooled off.

Drain off the stock and add the vinegar. Let it soak into the potatoes for at least five minutes. In the mean time put the mustard into a small bowl and gradually stir in the oil. Add the yoghurt and stir, add the onions and pickles. Now carefully mix this dressing with the salad, so the potato slices don’t get mashed.

Best served refrigerated. Bon appetit!

 

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The Case of the Missing Tombstones

Together with a German friend my wife and I are just completing a book documenting the features and history of an old Jewish cemetery in rural Bavarian Swabia (see the picture above). During our work we becam increasingly aware of the fact that many tombstones which should be there, are actually nowhere. This blog explores the mystery of the missing tombstones.

Kolleffel map of Krumbach and Hürben, 1760

Krumbach is a small market town in Southern Germany. In fact, today’s town of Krumbach resulted from the amalgamation of two earlier, separate communities: Krumbach and Hürben. Hürben was a small farming village where Jews had settled since the 16th century. The exact date Jews first put down their roots is somewhat clouded by the mist of history. Although a document from 1759 refers to 1504 [1], the first documented, contemporary mention of Jews in Hürben appeared in 1542 [2]. The first legal resident Jew – Salomon Jud – was recorded in 1580 [3]. A single named legal person probably encompassed a whole household including any number of children, inlaws and assorted helpers.

A Hürben rabbi Moses from Angelberg is mentioned in 1568 and rabbi Isak of Prerau appears in 1670. It is likely that, over the years, Jews migrated to Hürben in groups from other communities, but this is documented only for the Jews evicted from Thannhausen in 1718. By 1759 at least eight extended Jewish families were living in Hürben, but only two owned their own houses.

The margraviate of Burgau, ca. 1750

Originally, Jews had to bury their dead in the only Jewish cemetery in the region, near the town of Burgau, the capital of the margraviate bearing the same name, some 16 miles north of Hürben. But in 1628 the Jews of Hürben received permission to establish their own cemetery. In 1675 the Jews were also allowed to build a synagogue, which was subsequently enlarged in 1710 and 1765 to keep pace with an ever growing community. It was rebuilt in 1819 and, finally, destroyed in the Night of Broken Glass – November 9. 1938.

cemetery plan
Cemetery plan with expansion dates

The cemetery, too, was expanded about eight times between 1628 and 1924. Whereas the first Hürben Jews earned their livelihood as pedlars, horse traders, money lenders, wheelers and dealers, over the years they gradually entered settled trades, respected businesses and the professions. The Jewish community of Hürben reached its peak between 1840 and 1850 counting some 652 members.

After 1850 the Jewish population gradually declined, initially due to emigration to North-America, and after 1860, migration to the large urban centers in Germany. The last fourteen Hürben Jews were deported and murdered 1942 in Piaski near Lublin, German occupied Poland.

Deaths by period and age group

Deaths by period and age group

Vital data extracted from a variety of sources allows us to  estimate the total number of deaths. Prior to 1784 data derives from burial tax receipts in the archives. From 1785 to 1876 we have analysed the death records contained in the Gatermann films, and death records after 1876 are kept in the municipal archives of Krumbach. Over the duration of Hürben’s Jewish community, approximately 2096 people had died. But 890 of them were children under the age of 1 year. According to Jewish law, children who died within their first 30 days of life warrant very limited obsequies. But given the high infant mortality, the impecunity of most Jews at the time and the cost of stones, few of the very young children would have been given a tombstone.This would lead us to expect at least 1206 graves. But only 231 graves still exist today, none older than 200 years. How have the other, almost thousand tombstones disappeared? The answer to this riddle evolves in stages.

It may not be widely known, but in contrast to the custom in Christian cemeteries, Jewish tombstones are placed for perpetuity. In fact, any unwarranted interference with a grave is strictly prohibited by religious laws. It is thus unthinkable that the headstones were removed by the Jews themselves. Furthermore, there was no need for it. The periodic purchases of land for cemetery expansion show that the size of the cemetery kept pace with the growing number of graves.

Wooden grave markers from Fischach cemetery

In May 1926 Isidor Kahn, retired school principal in Krumbach published a little article in the Journal of the Jewish Communities of Bavaria regarding the history of Jewish Hürben [4]. In one sentence he deplores the disappearance of the tombstones originating from before the Napoleonic Wars. His explanation, unfortunately, does not hold water. He claimed that all those markers had been carved in oak and were used by the Austrian troops as firewood. While it is true that occasional oaken tomb markers existed at the time, they were by far the minority in Bavaria. Even before 1800, most Jewish tombs were marked by proper headstones. However, he clearly dates the disappearance of the 17th and 18th century stones long before the second World War. It is quite likely that those stones vanished during the Napoleonic Wars for whatever reason. But the event was not recorded in municipal archives.

Archival pictures from 1943

Not much is known about the history of the cemetery during the Nazi period. Pictures taken by the town of Krumbach in 1943 show the cemetery in disarray. We can still recognize some stones which no longer exist today. On September 15. 1944 the Nazi authorities entered a contract with the local master stonemason Joseph Wiedemann, selling him the Jewish cemetery with all its content for 1600.- Reichsmark. The agreement is of interest in several respects: (i) the date – in the fall of 1944 the Allied troops stood at the German border and the end of the Thousand Year Empire was in sight. (ii) the contract required Mr. Wiedemann “to complete the removal of all remaining stones.” In other words, the larceny had been going on long before September 1944, and, (iii) transferring any liability for future claims of loss or damage onto Mr. Wiedemann. In 1989, 45 years later, the son of Joseph Wiedemann received his money back from the Jewish Community in Augsburg.

Purchase contract of cemetery in 1944

It is fairly obvious that Joseph Wiedemann bears no guilt in the destruction of the cemetery. In fact, he probably contributed to the preservation of the remaining stones. If he had been involved in their earlier removal, he would have shunned any liability for their damage and disappearance. Furthermore, among the remaining stones there are some big, polished granite blocks, that would have been much more appealing for re-use than the old sandstones that form the bulk of the loss. However, material from other Jewish cemeteries had been ‘recycled’ quite shamelessly.

At the end of the war the remaining stones were lying helter-skelter all over the newest section of the cemetery. They were reset in a rather arbitrary order during the American occupation. It had namely been the custom in 17th and 18th century Jewish cemeteries in Southern Germany for men, women, women having died in child-birth and children, all to be buried in separate rows [5] [6] [7]. This order was no longer apparent.

Pattern of tombstone disappearance

The pattern of tombstone disappearance is very peculiar. There is not a sharp cut-off, but a gradual trend. In fact, the larger, the newer and the more to the north side of the cemetery a grave, the less likely was its tombstone to disappear.

 

 

 

In summary then:

  • The 17th and 18th century tombstones went already missing during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Three quarters of the 19th and 20th century tombstones have disappeared gradually between 1938 and 1944.
  • It involved mainly the older, smaller sandstones rather than the bigger, newer and flashier granites.
  • We conclude that the stones had been removed piecemeal as building material and for foundations, rather than for re-use as gentile headstones.

In retrospect, it is almost impossible to identify existing Krumbach buildings resting on Jewish foundations.

This investigation would not have succeeded without the overwhelming enthusiasm, energy, patience and proficiency of our friend Erwin Bosch, a prominent native of Krumbach. He spent many hundreds, if not thousands of hours in local archives, sifting through dusty documents from five centuries, reading and organising them in order to gradually develop a plausible picture. We are deeply in his debt for his having made our concern his own.

  1. 1759 Urbarium of Hürben []
  2. Imperial Proclamation of the Freedom of the City of Memmingen, 1542. []
  3. 1580 Urbarium of Hürben []
  4. Kahn I. Geschichtliches von Hürben-Krumbach. Bayerische Israelitische Gemeindezeitung 1926(5): 139-40. []
  5. Kuhn P. et al. Jüdischer Friedhof von Georgensgmünd. Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich 2006 []
  6. Judenfriedhof Endingen-Lengnau. Menes Verlag 1993 []
  7. Bamberger N.B-G. Der jüdische Friedhof von Schmieheim. Bamberger Familien Archiv, Jerusalem 1999 []
Posted in Genealogy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Digital Disabilities of the Elderly

I am a senior! No, you don’t have to commiserate with me. I am quite happy – and lucky too. After all, aging is the “in-thing”. Aging is chic. It is even a growth industry. There are lurking legions of caretakers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, intercessors and lobbyists out there, just panting for me to ask for their “help”. I don’t even have to ask.

This development is particularly insidious, when it comes to activities and ventures such as the new media that did not exist fifty years ago. After all, it was our and previous generations who created the foundations for those media. Still, we are being identified as living fossils.

Sometimes, they ask us about our experiences, views and opinions. Sometimes, they even listen, particularly, if our responses harmonize with their canons and theories.

It reminds me a bit of black liberation in the 60’s and women’s assimilation in the 70’s. There is a difference, though. We seniors have been youngsters once, and, occasionally, we remember. The reverse does not hold.

I agree: things are different. No, I haven’t changed. The world around me has changed. My world has changed. I have episodes where I remember my young adulthood. The world was mine oyster, wide, open and full of opportunities. Risks were negligible; hurdles were there to be jumped, walls to be broached, rivers and oceans to be crossed. True, I didn’t have any money. But if I did, I would have invested it with abandon in all kind of risky ventures.

Over the subsequent fifty years or so, I have collected experience. The world has closed in around me. Accidents do happen, hurdles topple, walls cause bruises, you can drown in rivers and oceans, businesses fail. Liars, cheaters, thieves and robbers are waiting in the wings. Now, I do have some money. It is safely invested for a rainy day.

It is not just loss of ability, strength, aggression and power. It is also a growing loss of confidence in my own autonomy. I have become aware of my limitations. If I act differently today than sixty years ago, it is not necessarily that I can’t do it; it is that I don’t trust that I can.

I can type, e-mail and blog. I can create web sites and databases. I write my own software. But I don’t Twitter nor venture on Facebook. The social media are beyond the scope of my shrunken world. Digital disabilities of the elderly are as much affective in nature, as they are due to cognitive, perceptive or motor losses.

Posted in Computing, Health Care, Res Publica | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Squeezebox Woes

I bought a Squeezebox Radio from Logitech. It replaces my old bedside short wave radio. I still fondly remember the 70’s, before the airwaves had become so anemic. It was then still possible to receive New York and Boston talk shows in Southern Ontario. I had downloaded the manual even before the box arrived by courier. By the time I set up the Squeezebox, I practically knew the instructions by heart. Even so, it wasn’t quite trivial to lead the Squeezebox through the trickeries of my wireless network. But the perfect reception of Boston, New York, London, Paris, Munich, Canberra and Budapest stations made more than up for the effort.

I did enjoy the Squeezebox that night. Subsequently, I also installed the squeeze server on my desktop. I had fun experimenting, tweaking and optimizing. But gradually, things started to go awry. I started loosing preset stations. Storing ‘Favorites’ functioned inconsistently. The menu seemed to change spontaneously. The audio might come from one station, the display from another. And, finally, the Squeezebox announced: ‘Can’t connect!’ Actually, looking back on it, the Squeezebox had difficulties with its biorythm. Almost all the problems occurred at night time. During the day, the box appeared to be reasonably happy.

The manual was of no help. I tried to find the answers on the support pages – nada! I called the helpline; I might as well have talked to a parakeet. The only advice was to do a factory reset and start everything afresh. I had to understand the system myself.

It became rapidly clear that the problems occurred primarily, when my desktop was switched off. But that was not the complete answer it took quite a bit more experimenting until I finally found the answer. Here it is:

The Squeezebox has three separate initialization sequences. The factory reset is the major one. Everything has to be entered from scratch. The network parameters have to be entered by hand; WPS does not work. The more common initialization occurs, when you connect the power. The box looks for the presence of a squeeze server to store optional data on. If it doesn’t find a server, it uses the default mode and stores optional parameters internally. The least complex initialisation occurs, when you turn the unit on. It just gets the parameters from its designated memory.

What had happened to me was that I had connected the box to the outlet, while the squeeze server was running. Before going to bed, I had turned off the desktop computer running the squeeze server. No wonder, the Squeezebox couldn’t find its parameters. Once I had figured this out, my woes were gone.

It is unfortunate that Logitech brings a device on the market, however ingenious, before sufficient support information has been developed to spare users unneccessary frustration.

Posted in Computing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Did Lazarus Morgenthau elope?

“Almost ninety years ago, on November 2, 1843, Lazarus Morgenthau married Babette Guggenheim of Hürben; whom he had known as a child and whom he had watched grow to womanhood.”

Thus Louise Heidelberg begins a biographic sketch of her grandfather, Lazarus Morgenthau in April of 1933. The sketch was to round out Lazarus’ own autobiography of his early years in Bavarian Swabia. The purpose of this blog is to explore blatant discrepancies between various Morgenthau biographies and local records.

Lazarus Morgenthau was not just anybody. He is the legendary patriarch of one great Jewish American family, prominent in public service and philantropy over several generations. His journey from rags to riches, from Kleinwaldstadt in Bavaria to New York has been described amply in several biographies and an on-line exhibition, all emanating from the family [1], [2], [3], [4].

Unfortunately, there is no trace of the celebrated marriage in the Hürben records [5], neither for 1843, nor before or after. Both, the list of Jewish marriages kept by the rabbi, and the official copy maintained by the catholic priest show only two Jewish marriages for 1843; neither involved Lazarus Morgenthau or Babette Guggenheim(er). Maybe, Lazarus and Babette married somewhere else? There is no record of such a marriage in any Jewish community of Bavarian Swabia.

Babette Guggenheim or Guggenheimer (the exact spelling was somewhat fluid) descended from a prominent Hürben family. Her father, Joachim (Chaim, Hayum) Guggenheim was a merchant. Her uncle Samuel Guggenheimer was the ritual circumciser (mohel) of the community. Babette’s birth name was actually “Seline” according to her birth record. Babette’s great-grandfather Marx Guggenheimb had arrived in Hürben around 1725 from Endingen, one of two Jewish villages in Switzerland.

At the time of her presumed marriage in 1843, Babette was 17 years old, five years younger than the average age  at marriage of her peers. Her father and mother would have been in their seventies and sixties respectively. Babette was the youngest, possibly second youngest of 12 or 13 children.

Since Lazarus’ parents had been dead for over 10 years in 1843, a traditional wedding outside of Hürben, the bride’s home, would have been unthinkable given the customs of the time.

But there are other inconsistencies. Although the only published chapter of the autobiography is entitled: “First Period from the Year 1820 to 1826”, it takes us well into 1838 or possibly 1839. Nowhere are Babette or Joachim Guggenheim mentioned, even once. There is, however, a prominent mention of one Isaac Hirsch Ottinger [6], a religious scholar who gave Lazarus private lessons. Lazarus was very grateful to Mr. Oettinger “.. for other services that he rendered when I settled in Hürben which I will describe later.” He never did! But we do know quite a bit about Lazarus applying and finally receiving a residency permit in Hürben. There exists in fact a record at the Krumbach district office describing the application for and the granting of a permanent residency permit for  ‘journeyman tailor Lazarus Morgenthau’ [7]. By 1841, therefore, Lazarus was a legal resident of Hürben. In the mean time, he had also acquired an apartment on Heinrich Sinz St. 6. He sold the apartment again in 1843 and a further chamber in 1844. It would have made a perfect home for a young married couple.

The version of Lazarus’ autobiography available at the Library of Congress, as mentioned before, ends in 1838 or 1839, and the town of “Speyer” is not mentioned at all. In the version cited by Henry Morgenthau III, Lazarus had lived and worked in Speyer for several years prior to his marriage. Speyer is situated some 250 Km from Hürben, a world apart before the advent of railways. This was also, where the couple actually made its home.

Thus, we have documentary evidence that Lazarus had settled down in Hürben shortly before his marriage, that a Morgenthau – Guggenheim wedding did not take place in Hürben,  and that he didn’t weigh anchors in Hürben until 1843/4. It just raises the possibility that the wedding wasn’t the grand affair described in “Mostly Morgenthaus”.

  1. The Diary of Lazarus Morgenthau, N.Y. 1933. LoC CT275.M625 A3 []
  2. Mostly Morgenthaus. Henry Morgenthau III. New York : Ticknor & Fields, 1991. ISBN: 0899199763 []
  3. Morgenthau Family: Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Books LLC. ISBN-10: 1156290821 []
  4. http://www.mjhnyc.org/morgenthaus/ []
  5. jgbs.org []
  6. actually, Oettinger []
  7. 1839-1841; Ansässigmachung des Schneidergesellen Lazarus Morgenthau in Hürben (Nr.2814.) []
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Chomsky vs. Turing

Solving a computational problem in advanced statistics, I recently experienced an epiphany that led me from Alan Turing to Noam Chomsky.

Alan Turing (1912 – 1954) is considered the father of modern computer science. Around 1936 he proposed a theoretical computing machine that could solve general classes of computing problems. The first such machines were purely conceptual. They consisted of a data storage medium from which data could be read sequentially, and a multi-state engine that would predictably change state depending on the data read. During his war time work as a code breaker in Bletchley Park, Turing gradually turned these theoretical ideas into actual data processing machines. Initially, the logic of Turing machines was hard-wired. But both Turing and John von Neumann extended the concept to stored logic computing machines, where the computing logic itself was considered data: a program.

For the past 70 years, computer science has largely followed the Turing paradigm – a conceptual engine that changes its state depending on data entered. This state transition is typically represented in programming languages by “if…then…” switches. A variety of programming techniques were developed to tame the ever sprouting vegetation of “if…then…” constructs, with various degrees of success.

Another scientific father figure – Noam Chomsky, a theoretical linguist – developed his model of generative grammar in the 1950s. He probably wasn’t thinking of computers at all, when he came up with the concept of “transformational syntax”. Where Turing was concerned with computation, Chomsky’s focus was on language. I will define language here to suit my purpose: “a linear sequence of symbols, drawn repeatedly from a finite symbol set to consistently express and communicate a potentially unlimited number of meanings”.

A colleague had asked me to help him solve a statistical problem, which his fancy toolbox of statistical software could not handle. The problem was clearly defined, his need was acute and I designed a program to meet his specific need all in the conventional Turingian paradigm. He liked the program and wanted to apply it to a set of related problems. As sets are prone to do, this one too kept expanding and expanding. I added more and more branches into my state change logic. It becam almost impossible to keep track of the logical landscape. I was ready to toss in the proverbial towel.

That was, when it hit me: the description of his psychological experiments formed a language. Even though the descriptive terms of individual facets would span the alphabet, each facet could be classified according to a tree with 10 final branches. Suddenly, the problem had become almost trivial. The spaghetti salad of “if…then…” constructs changed into a four step algorithm: (i) the original problem formulation is encoded according to facet classes; (ii) the encoded problem formulation is transformed according to well defined syntactic rules; (iii) the results of the transformations form a finite set of problem signatures; (iv) for a given problem signature, a corresponding formula calculates the desired results. Now, my colleague’s desires for expanding the problem set even further rarely meets with more than a yawn.

Software designers might find it useful, to look for an implied language in a given problem formulation and employ syntactic transformation to arrive at an economical solution..

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And Maytag Sucks Too

This blog is gradually turning into a serial drama. In the last installment, Sears wanted to sell me a C$ 249 assembly to repair a 5 cent broken part. I reported that I had subsequently found a subassembly for C$ 35 on the web. Not!

The mysterious part 17.

The mysterious part 17.

I had entered the exact model number of my dishwasher at PartSelect.com. The diagram displayed was correct. Obviously, I needed to replace “part 17”.  I scrolled down to part 17 and found a part number. The VISA card practically jumped out of my wallet by itself. The order went in on Friday and Purolator had it in my hands by Tuesday. It couldn’t have worked any better.

There was just one little problem. The part number was different from the one I had ordered. The part didn’t look the same as on the picture; and, worst of all, the screw holes would not line up. The part was totally useless.

I called PartSelect and got to talk with another nice lady. “Yes”, she said, “Maytag is now owned by Whirlpool. They don’t make those parts anymore, but Whirlpool recommends to replace it with this other part instead” . “But, but”, I pleaded, “the part doesn’t fit the rest of the machine. It can’t be attached!”. “OK”, she replied, “but Whirlpool never claimed, it would!”

I shouldn’t be totally ungrateful, however. PartSelect allows me to return the wrong part 17. I will still have to pay shipping cost both ways. It has practically come to the point where you have to expect to be ripped off when dealing with Big Business.

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Sears Sucks

Last Wednesday morning my beloved called in an accusatory voice: “the dishwasher is broken!”

Intraoperative picture of the broken widget.

I swear by my honor, I didn’t break it. Although, I must admit, my dirty dishes contributed significantly to the collective weight of the basket that ultimately exceeded the yield strength of whatever part that gave way and broke the camel’s back. Since it is a given in our home, established over 45 years of marital bliss, that I am responsible for anything that goes wrong, I made an emergency housecall to the kitchen. No question, the patient was gimpy. The middle drawer leaned suspiciously to the right. A short diagnostic survey quickly isolated the problem: a broken widget!

“Widget”, in fact, is just a familiar pet name. Its offical name is: “Rack adjuster wheel shaft”. Having thus identified the culprit in an internet line-up, I called Sears Appliance Service. Webster’s Dictionary lists 22 definitions for the term “service”. The most appropriate definition seems to be number 18: “anything useful, as maintenance, supplies, installation, repairs etc. provided by a dealer or manufacturer for people who have bought things from him.” We bought the dishwasher six years ago from Sears. Six years is not old age as far as brand name appliances go. Our dishwasher is in its prime.

After winding my way through Sear’s automated phone service, I got to talk to a nice lady. But she didn’t share my confidence in the vitality of a six year old dishwasher. “No”, she said, “unfortunately, this part is no longer being manufactured. You have to order a new rack adjuster assembly for C$ 249.- plus tax”. I thanked the nice lady with strained civility but declined her generous offer.  I shouldn’t really blame her. After all, she didn’t make corporate policy – she is just executing it.

The time had come for surgery – plastic welding epoxy to the rescue. I won’t bore you with the gory details of the operation. It succeeded; the patient is hale, the basket straight and my beloved happy – the world is in order again. But is it?

Further search on the internet led me to a supplier that will sell me a “rack adjuster subassembly” matching my dishwasher model for just C$ 35.82 plus tax. I may just get one. As the little picture shows, the “rack adjuster wheel shaft” shows signs of early atherosclerosis. My surgery probably just bought us a few more months. But why can’t I just get the little wheel assembly by itself? True, it would require some more complex parts logistics. The little widget, that probably cost no more than a penny to manufacture, could be sold honestly for 5 or 10 dollars to pay for the opportunity cost of maintaining stores. But that is apparently not enough for the business model of Sears. The little widget has become a victim of the “just-in-time” philosophy so prevalent in today’s corporate world. But it is about more than just money! Just think of the environmental impact if you discard $50 worth of parts unnecessarily for every $1 that needs it.

Selling customers assemblies for 250 dollars instead of widgets for 10 dollars does wonders for a CEO’s bonus. But I didn’t buy the assembly. Hopefully, more customers will wise up and boycott the sharp practice of Sears Repair Service and its ilk. This way, in the end, many CEOs will only get their golden parachute instead.

Oh, I almost forgot, maybe, Webster’s should append a 23rd definition of service: “a method of squeezing even more money out of people dumb enough to buy from you in the first place.

Postscript

I should have done this before: A Google search for “Sears Sucks” returns 2180 hit!

Final Postscript (Dec. 11. 2012)

I didn’t expect it, but the success of the  desperate surgery had lasted for over two years. The widget is still whole. But last week our eight year old Maytag dishwasher developed terminal whooping cough. In fact, it sounds like our snow-blower that hadn’t been in operation last season at all. But a dishwasher shouldn’t sound like a snow-blower. So we had to finally place it on the “Do not resuscitate” list. Right now it is crowing its swan song. Tomorrow, the men from Miele will come and take it away to its final resting place.

We are looking forward to its sparkling, whispering, and hopefully, healthier successor.

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