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 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.


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.

Post Final Postscript (Dec. 10. 2021)

There still is justice in this world: Sears’s Demise!

Posted in Corporate Greed | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments


This morning I have discovered S.A.D.D. No, I haven’t invented it, I discovered it. It must have been around for quite a while; but this morning it suddenly became clear to me, what it was: “Senior Attention Deficit Disorder”, short S.A.D.D.

Now, don’t mistake S.A.D.D. for the ordinary garden variety of A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. abbreviations for “Attention Deficit Disorder” or “Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity  Disorder”. Those are just little boys in need of a spanking. It was so aptly described by the famous German, 19th century child psychologist Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann in his pioneering clinical study on “Jitter Philipp” (see accompanying illustration).

No, S.A.D.D. is serious. It is not about children paying insufficient attention to their homework, au contraire: it is about people not paying sufficient attention to an attention deserving senior!

Onset is typically around age 65 in men after retirement and 55 in women, when the children have left the home. A successful career can be an aggravating factor in men, a dozen children makes things worse for women. S.A.D.D. meets most of the DSM IV criteria for “Major Depressive Episode“. Hypochondriasis may provide secondary gains; for nothing brings the children home faster than the announcement of a serious illness in a parent.

But there is hope! No MAOIs, TCAs, TeCAs, SSRIs or SNRIs are needed Even ECT is unnecessary, although electricity is still required for palliative therapy. No, the prescription is for a blog a week, and more if required. Suddently the patient feels that somebody is listening, even if it is only the monitor screen. Comments are a form of attention and extended blogging can lead to finding peer support groups. Adverse effects are minor; sore fingers and mounting hydro bills among them. But one caveat has to be sounded: excessive blogging in one spouse may lead to S.A.D.D in the other.

Well, now that I have announced my discovery to the world, I can sit back and wait for my call from Stockholm. That should give me the attention I crave!

Posted in Health Care, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Journalist as Interpreter

Our daughter “me” just drew my attention to another geriatric blogger. In fact, Donald P. Irish is almost twenty years my senior. Makes me feel very junior. I was totally taken by his recent post Why Is There Terrorism? Part Three, a very powerful and profound analysis of one of the most acute threats to civilisation as we know it.

Professor Irish argues very convincingly what I have felt all along but was unable to formulate so elegantly. OK, so I agree with him, or maybe, he with me. Is that the end of it? The post isn’t easy fare. Apart from the suboptimal visual layout, the sentences tend to be complex. They deal with abstract ideas, and much of his supportive evidence is not part of the common man’s experience nor education. His prose, while elegant, is far beyond grade six reading level. In short, he talks like one academic to another.

But is this enough? He doesn’t have to convince me – I already am. To have real impact, political impact, historical impact, he has to convince people of Sarah Palin’s ilk. He has to talk to the mass of Tea Party members. He must get John Boehner to listen up and say “Yeah, halleluja”. But few of us have been educated in classical rethoric. Cicero could do it and so could George Washington. Unfortunately, rethoric hasn’t been taught in our school system for the past 100 years.

But there is one profession trained to talk to Joe Bloe, Mr. and Ms Middle America and even to Sarah Palin – journalists! When they aren’t  satisfied with feeding the plebs pulpy pablum, they can really capture people’s attention. There must be enough serious and eloquent journalists out there, who can give Donald Irish’s powerful ideas a powerful voice! Where are they?

To paraphrase Donald Irish: what we need is more mirrors and fewer gun sights!

Posted in Res Publica | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Genealogical Data Model

Sooner or later, most engaged genealogists outgrow their paper napkin diagrams, typed charts and even filing cards as preferred method of record keeping; they move on to some form of genealogical software. In my case, that step happened relatively early. I did a survey of freeware and commercially available software and was not impressed. No package offered all the features I desired, and none had adequate extension capabilities. Obviously, I had to design my own. But to tell the truth, necessity wasn’t the only reason for my DIY choice. Designing software gives me as much pleasure as watching porn movies or propagating rare orchids may give to others.

The die was cast. I would write my own. But what about context? I wanted the program for myself, to meet my needs, and I wasn’t going to commercialize it. It had to run on a PC platform; after all, real men don’t use Macs! My choice for programming language was between C++ and Visual Basic. I am too lazy to keep track of pointers. So I was pretty much limited to VB6 for the first version.

The next big issue was the basic data model for genealogical records. Obviously, my research led me to GEDCOM, version 5.5.2 . GEDCOM goes back to the 1980s, when it was developed by the LDS church for public ancestry files. It has evolved since and become the de facto standard for serialized genealogical records.  For several years there was talk of GEDCOM XLM, but it never made a mark; and why should it? GEDCOM 5.5.2 is perfect – perfect for serializing genealogic records!

And there’s the rub. Efficient software design involving large data sets requires a relational database. Yes, GEDCOM can be forced into the Procrustes bed of relational tables. But basing a genealogical program entirely on the GEDCOM structure means sacrificing execution time – big time. Drawing a kinship tree iterating through the basic GEDCOM model is like sucking treacle through a straw. On the other hand, taking a steam roller to GEDCOM to force the data into a flat table is no answer either. Resulting rows would contain hundreds of columns, most of them empty.

This conundrum gave me quite a few sleepless nights. But my epiphany arrived just in time: I would keep the information in a GEDCOM structure in the form of a simple, three column table corresponding to the three columns of a GEDCOM record: “Level”, “Tag” and “Value”. Actually, I lied. There are four more columns to make things work: “Node”, “Parent”, “Root” and “Cheat”. Each record has a unique index number called “Node”. To maintain the hierarchical structure of GEDCOM, any record can act as a parent to child records. Child records carry the node number of their parent record in their parent field. In the context of genealogy, this terminology can be confusing. ‘Parent’ and ‘Child’ refer only to a relation between records, not people. Any record with level zero is considered a root record. Its value goes into the “Root” field of itself and all its descendants. That leaves us with the “Cheat” field. It is a boolean, usually ‘false’. I wanted to leave myself the option of cheating, i.e. to use non LDS-sanctioned tags. But I wanted to cheat honestly by signalling where a tag wasn’t ‘kosher’ with a ‘Cheat’ value of ‘true’!

The last ingredient to the data model are the two index tables, one for individuals, the other for families. But having the same data in more than one table of a relational database would probably cause Edgar Codd to turn in his grave. In fact, you can’t even call the database relational. OK, so I call it pseudo-relational. There is a price, though, I have to pay for this act of transgression: every transaction involving writing to a root record or changing a family composition must pass through a compulsory integrity check. One can also wrap this operation into an SQL transaction. But it is a small price to pay.

The program worked like a charm. It was robust, fast and could perform all the functions I wanted. Since then I have written a second version in C#. It is even faster and easier to maintain and extend. It runs on all our networked computers. My wife and I both use it simultaneously. The database runs in an MS-SQL-Express server on one of our machines. When we travel, we create a temporary copy of the database on the laptop.

Posted in Computing, Genealogy | 2 Comments

Bavarian Jews in the “Old Immigration”

American historians use several different nomenclatures to designate various immigration waves to the United States. The immigration during the period between 1820 and 1880 is often called “Old Immigration” ((RACE AND ETHNIC RELATIONS: AMERICAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES, Cengage Learning, 2008; ISBN: 0-495-50436-X. pp. 117 -8)). Prominent among this wave were Jewish immigrants from Bavaria ((Hasia R. Diner. The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. Univ. of California Press 2004; ISBN: 0-520-24848-I. p83)). There were both ‘pull’ and ‘push’ reasons for people to undertake such a perilous and gruelling journey. In this essay, I will attempt to demonstrate that for Bavarian Jews in the first half of the 19th century, the ‘push’ motivation was pre-eminent. Jews left Bavaria for endemic reasons, such as antisemitism and poor economic prospects as well as for structural reasons – the Bavarian Jews’ Edict of 1813 ((James F. Harris. The people speak!: anti-Semitism and emancipation in nineteenth-century Bavaria. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994; ISBN: 0-472-10437-3. pp209-37 & 241-45)).

Given the state of administration and technology in 19th century United States, immigration statistics have to be taken with a large grain of salt. Never the less, official figures show two peaks in the rate of German immigration: the first for the period 1841 – 1860, the second for 1881 – 1900 ((US Dept. of Justice. 2001 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Table 2.)). But these official statistics don’t allow us to single out Bavarian Jews.

Using data extracted from the Jewish ‘Family Book’ from one little Bavarian-Swabian town – Altenstadt, I will illustrate the temporal course of this immigration wave. Civil records for 19th century German Jews consisted essentially of birth, marriage and death records, as well as the so calle ‘Familienbuch’, a registry of Jewish families living (legitimately) in the community. For each family the house or house section is listed; for the head of household and dependents the names, dates of birth, sometimes dates of marriage and deaths are listed as well. The Altenstadt family book was maintained by the rabbi, as manifest by occasional Hebrew dates of birth.

Between 1800 and 1869 Altenstadt had three rabbis. Abraham Mayer, born about 1767, died in 1837. He was followed by his son Mayer (Meir) Mayer, born 1796 who died in March 1849. Both Abraham and his son Mayer were born in Altenstadt and lived there most of their lives. After Mayer’s death there was an interregnum with rabbis from neighbouring communities pinch hitting. In 1853 Emanuel Schwab, born 1812 in Heidingsfeld near Würzburg took over the position, acting also as school principal. After Schwab’s death in July 1869 the Jewish community of Altenstadt had shrunk to the point, where it no longer warranted its own rabbi. The Altenstadt family book was started after Abraham Mayer’s death, for he doesn’t feature in it. His son Mayer, though, was totally familiar with the community, having grown up in it and knowing everybody. It is likely from the entries that both he and Emanuel Schwab were the authors of the family book.

The rabbis noted important features and events for each family and individual in the last column. Showing a full page of the family book would tax the layout capability of a blog. I have, therefore, selected an illustrative excerpt, exposing just the last few columns of a page including dates of birth and comments for the family of Jacob Koppel Guggenheimer, a farmer and horse dealer, and his wife Jette Monheimer. It becomes obvious, how many of Altenstadt’s Jewish denizens undertook the journey to ‘Amerika’. Sometimes, it was just one or two family members, sometimes it involved whole families.

Plotting the actual number of live births and people emigrating according to gender and birth year results in a rather confusing picture. Actual numbers, according to the laws of statistics, are too small to provide a coherent picture. Statistical techniques have to be employed to create some clarity. The first step is to calculate summary statistics:

The table shows that more women survived than men. People, who emigrated, were considerably younger than the population in general and emigrating females were slightly younger than  males.

The situation becomes only obvious, after we calculate running averages over a period of ten years, centered at an index year and form the percentage of emigrating individuals to total individuals for each index birth year and gender. We now see that emigration involved a relatively narrow birth cohort, namely people born between 1820 and 1850. At its peak, almost 60% of males and 30% of females emigrated to America. By 1861 the Bavarian Jews’ Edict was repealed. Shortly afterwards, Jews were free to move into cities and to earn their livelihood as they saw fit. The ‘push’ component in the motivation to emigrate had disappeared.

Maybe it is appropriate to sound some methodological caveats. Altenstadt is but one of many small and midsized Jewish communities in Bavaria. It would be unwise to extrapolate the model uncritically to all of Bavaria or even Germany. With the repeal of the Jews’ Edict in 1861, the requirement to keep a family book for the Jewish community ceased, and consequently, the records were no longer updated. This might make the trailing edge of the emigration wave appear more precipitous than it actually was. Never the less, the emigration spike of Bavarian Jews is striking and of interest to many American genealogists with Jewish ancestors in Bavaria.

Posted in Genealogy | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The Labyrinthine Trails of the Gatermann Films

An important data source for Jewish genealogists with roots in 19th century Germany are the Jewish civil records or “Personenstandsregister” extant in many German state archives, the Family History Center and the CAHIP archives in Jerusalem. The final common pathways, how the records came to these repositories, are the so called Gatermann films. The history of these films is shrouded in mystery that still has not been fully solved. To date, no authoritative catalogue exists in German archives of the roughly 3’400 filmed documents.

No systematic records of birth, marriage or death existed for Jews in Germany prior to 1784. In 1875 universal civil records were introduced for all Germans. During the 110 intervening years, distinct Jewish civil records were kept at a community level for Jews in parallel to the church books for gentiles. Most often, these records were maintained by the rabbi or by a Hebrew school teacher; but commonly, duplicates were kept by the local evangelical pastor or catholic priest. Subsequently, the Jewish civil records were variously stored in synagogues, municipal offices or archives. They suffered from neglect, mold, water and fire, some were mislaid, others disposed off.

The Gatermann Fims
The history of the Gatermann films

But in April 1933, less than 3 months after the Nazis coming to power, the Reichstag passed a law that made Aryan ancestry a prerequisite for a public service job. As part of its implementation, an office was created to pronounce authoritatively who was and who was not an Aryan ((Schulle, Diana. Das Reichssippenamt : eine Institution nationalsozialistischer Rassenpolitik. Berlin : Logos Verlag Berlin (2001), 2001. ISBN 3-89722-672-3)). To assist in this endeavour, 19th century Jewish civil records were systematically collected from synagogues, municipalities and archives and brought to Berlin.

The Nazi agency in charge of this process successively changed its name from “Expert for Racial Research” to “State Agency for Kinship Research” to finally “State Kinship Office” or “RSA”. Early in 1945, when the end of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ was in sight, the documents were moved to Schloss Rathsfeld in Thuringia, and the Gatermann company from Duisburg was charged with the task of microfilming the complete cache of documents. A previous attempt at copying the films was already made in 1940, while still in Berlin ((Jude R. Die jüdischen Personenstandsunterlagen in der Deutschen Zentralstelle für Genealogie in Leipzig. Genealogie vol 1-2/1998: 4 – 18 and vol 3-4/1998: 106 -120)).

But now, things start to become nebulous. Somehow, the films disappeared from Schloss Rathsfeld during spring of 1945, to magically reappear 1948 in the hands of the Gatermann company, which sold the films to the German authorities at a State and Federal level. These documents were distributed further to regional archives. A complete set of documents, in the form of small paper contact copies, were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem in 1954. LDS reports that they filmed their copies in the respective state archives.

The two remaining questions are: what happened to the the original documents at the end of the war and how did the films end up again in the hands of the Gatermann company in 1948? Most experts assume that the original documents got lost during the final Russian assault. They might have drowned in a flood or they might have been taken back to Russia, hidden away in some arcane archives. 

At least two possible scenarios are considered for the fate of the films between 1945 and 1948. The more plausible is that they had been stashed away by the Gaterman company all along until the political climate allowed recouping the investment. The other theory, purported by LDS, claims that the films got into the hands of the US occupational forces, who generously restored them to the Gatermann company.

Maybe the answers to these mysteries lie hidden away in some Wahington and Moscow archives.

Posted in Genealogy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments