Sunday, June 30, 2013

100 Years Ago Today - Conclusion

When we last left the story of the journey of my grandmother, Zipporah Levintan, from her home in Velizh, Russia, to the USA, she had just boarded the Merion in Liverpool for the transatlantic trip, accompanied by her three children and one stepchild.

A hundred years ago today, she arrived, at a dock at the foot of Washington Avenue on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The newspapers of the day were not concerned with her arrival, but they were full of another story: the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Veterans from both sides of the battle converged on the small Pennsylvania town 100 miles west of Philadelphia, for remembrance and reconciliation. My grandmother never told me about her arrival, so I have to reconstruct it from short accounts from others.

Here is what my uncle Si had to say about it: I cannot remember my own arrival at the Pier. I was just a tot being carried in my mother's arms. My father had come here about a year ahead to get things ready for the rest of the family. I'm told that Mom couldn't recognize the Old Man. For horror of horrors...the yeshivah bocher who left Vitebsk with a luxuriant, black beard had shaved it off. When this "stranger" took us in his arms and murmured "meine kinder", we cried. We'd never seen this beardless character before!

And, if all goes well, on the hundredth anniversary of my grandmother's arrival in Philadelphia, I will be walking the streets of Velizh, the little town where she was born. (I have written this post ahead of time, as I anticipate no internet access for a few days.)

I am not expecting much in the way of historical finds related to my family, since Velizh was directly in the path of the brutal German invasion of Russia in 1941. I once asked my father if he still was in contact with relatives in Russia. He replied that there were some letters up to 1941, but nothing after that. And according to a 1942 dispatch from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, any relatives left behind in Velizh were probably murdered by the Germans:

Only Seventeen Jews Escape Massacre by Nazis in Russian Town of Velizh
September 9, 1942
A harrowing account of how the German occupation forces in the town of Velizh, in the Vitebsk district, used machine guns, the noose and fire to murder all but seventeen of the 1,440 Jewish residents of the village is related in a letter from one of the seventeen – a young half-Jewish girl – shown to this correspondent today.

The letter, written by Lida Grigorieva to her father, a Red Army man at the front, tells how the Germans drove all the Jews of the town into a ghetto as soon as they occupied Velizh. Nine hundred of them were confined in a pigsty. Every day groups of Jews were led to the outskirts of the town and shot, while others were hanged in the town itself, Miss Grigorieva writes.

When the Nazis were forced to abandon Velizh, they locked all the Jews in the pigsty, sprayed kerosene over it and set it afire, the letter discloses. Those who tried to escape were mowed down by machine guns. Only seventeen Jews remained alive.

My grandmother probably found her new life baffling and difficult. She had to adjust to new customs, a new language, and a new name. (Upon his arrival, my grandfather had his name arbitrarily changed to "Shaltz" by a confused immigration agent. With an anglicized first name, my grandmother then became "Celia Shaltz".)

My grandmother and my uncles and aunts were fortunate to leave when they did. I am very grateful to their determination to find a better life in America; I only wish they had told their stories in more detail. I have only been able to reconstruct a pale shadow of their experiences and journeys.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Confusion Everywhere

Over at the creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, there's a discussion where, remarkably, everybody is confused - both the intelligent design advocates and those arguing against them.

The example is given of flipping a presumably fair coin 500 times and observing it come up heads each time. The ID advocates say this is clear evidence of "design", and those arguing against them (including the usually clear-headed Neil Rickert) say no, the sequence HH...H is, probabilistically speaking, just as likely as any other.

This is an old paradox; it goes back as far as Samuel Johnson and Pierre-Simon Laplace. But neither the ID advocates nor their detractors seem to understand that this old paradox has a solution which dates back more than 15 years now.

The solution is by my UW colleague Ming Li and his co-authors. The basic idea is that Kolmogorov complexity offers a solution to the paradox: it provides a universal probability distribution on strings that allows you to express your degree of surprise on enountering a string of symbols that is said to represent the flips of a fair coin. If the string is compressible (as 500 consecutive H's would be) then one can reject the chance hypothesis with high confidence; if the string is, as far as we can see, incompressible, we cannot. It works because the proportion of compressible strings to noncompressible goes to 0 quickly as the length of the string increases.

So Rickert and his defenders are simply wrong. But the ID advocates are also wrong, because they jump from "reject the fair coin hypothesis" to "design". This is completely unsubstantiated. For example, maybe the so-called "fair coin" is actually weighted so that heads come up 999 out of 1000 times. Then "chance" still figures, but getting 500 consecutive 1's would not be so surprising; in fact it would happen about 61% of the time. Or maybe the flipping mechanism is not completely fair -- perhaps the coin is made of two kinds of metal, one magnetic, and it passes past a magnet before you examine it.

In other words, if you flip what is said to be a fair coin 500 times and it comes up heads every time, then you have extremely good evidence that your prior belief about the probability distribution of flips is simply wrong. But ID advocates don't understand this and don't apply it to biology. When they view some biological structure, calculate the probability based on a uniform distribution, claim it is "specified", and then conclude "design", they never bother to consider that using the uniform distribution for probabilities is unfounded, because the causal history of the events has not been taken into account. Any kind of algorithmic bias (such as happens when random mutation is followed by selection) can create results that differ greatly from the uniform distribution.

Elsberry and I discussed this in great detail in our paper years ago, but it seems neither side has read or understood it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Hundred Years Ago Today - Part III - On Board the Merion

One hundred years ago today, a Rembrandt portrait sold at auction for $104,000. William Jennings Bryan temporarily blocked plans to create the US Federal Reserve banking system. And Harvard beat Yale 4-3, in 14 innings of baseball.

But for me, this is the hundredth anniversary of the day -- June 18 1913 -- that my grandmother, Zipporah Levinton, boarded the ship in Liverpool, England that would take her to her new life in America.

As I imagine it, it must have been an interesting sight. Hundreds of steerage passengers lined up, clutching their belongings from little towns in Russia, Poland, Romania, and elsewhere, and holding kosher provisions for the voyage that were kindly supplied to them by relief agencies... my grandmother trying to keep her young children happy and occupied, while the first-class passengers boarded in luxury. The first-class passengers would have even received a little guidebook, detailing the many services of the ship and the names of the other first-class passengers, like the one shown here. First-class passengers would have eat breakfast at 8 AM, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 6 PM and 7:15 PM, and supper at 9 PM. But passengers like my grandmother probably had a menu something like this one.

The name of the ship was the S. S. Merion, built in 1902 in Scotland. It was 162 meters long and 18 meters wide, and had her maiden voyage on March 8 1902. For most of her career, she sailed for the American Line from Liverpool. Although most people have a picture in their minds of all immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York, in fact many arrived elsewhere, including Baltimore and (in my grandmother's case) Philadelphia.

My family did not save any records of that trip, or if they did, they are long gone now. But I managed to find a postcard of the Merion, and here it is:

If you look closely at the postcard, you can see what appears to be a rabbi in the front left section of the card.

And here is my grandmother and her children (and one from my grandfather's first marriage) listed in the Outwards Passenger Lists from the Records of the Board of Trade and of successor and related bodies, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England: Transatlantic ship travel was not completely safe. Of course, it was just the year before that the Titanic hit an iceberg in the north Atlantic and went down. (My grandfather emigrated on the Pisa in February-March 1912; just a month later, the Pisa encountered ice and was in the general vicinity of the Titanic when it sank.) And the Merion herself had several accidents, including a collision with a tanker on December 24 1912, off the coast of Delaware.

In August of 1913, the ship's commander would have been J. Beattie Hill, and the outgoing passenger records indicate he was the commander for my grandmother's trip, too. The ship records show that the Merion stopped on August 19 in Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland to pick up more passengers. All together there were (from the records I have access to) 1,036 passengers on the Merion headed to Philadelphia.

In 1914, the Merion was sold to the British navy, where it was used as a "decoy", and outfitted to look like the British battleship Tiger. On May 29 1915 this decoy ship was sunk by a German submarine.

For now, I'll leave my grandmother on the Merion, as the whistle sounds and the ship slowly leaves the port in Liverpool...

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Hundred Years Ago Today - Part II: Liverpool

Previously I wrote about my grandmother's trip to Hamburg on her way to the United States. There, she boarded the Stockport for the ten-day trip to Liverpool.

A hundred years ago today, she arrived in Liverpool. The ship from Hamburg stopped in Grimsby, on the east coast of England, before traveling to the west coast and Liverpool.

What else was happening in the world at that time? In Stamford, Connecticut, a train accident killed 5 and injured 17. In New York City, a subway cave-in crushed 12 laborers to death. And in Canada, the Atlantic Navy was disbanded.

But my grandmother didn't know about any of that. Like thousands of others, she was fleeing persecution in Russia, and (according to the Merseyside Maritime Museum), "Liverpool was the most popular port of departure for emigrants from Europe to the Americas and Canada."

As in Hamburg, my grandmother would have been assisted by Jewish emigrant groups. According to the Jewish Chronicle, "The Mansion House Relief Committee, convened by the Lord Mayor of London and supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Darwin and others, raised what in today’s terms would be millions of pounds to assist the journeys of Jews to America... People lodged in a hall ["Hachnasath Orechim"] capable of holding 400 and were provided with kosher food, clothing if needed and money. Many stayed, building Liverpool into at one time the most populous regional Jewish community. For others who passed through, preserved kosher meat was sent on to steamships for passengers — and letters of thanks in Hebrew for the good treatment the Jews on the boats received were presented to captains." Famous passengers who passed through Liverpool include movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and comedian Henny Youngman.

My grandmother would have had to wait several days to board the ship to Philadelphia and her new home. (to be continued...)

Friday, June 07, 2013

Alice Walker is Bonkers

From Jonathan Kay in the National Post, we learn that writer Alice Walker is a lunatic, apparently having bought into David Icke's claim that "Earth is secretly controlled by giant inter-dimensional lizards who have taken human form".

Icke is also an anti-Semite, claiming that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are genuine. Walker herself apparently refuses to allow her book The Color Purple be translated into Hebrew.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Creationists Get Their Book Published

When intelligent design advocates recently tried to get their creationist conference proceedings published by a major academic publisher, they got a rude surprise. Once they realized what was up, Springer apparently cancelled their acceptance.

So the creationists apparently moved to a different publisher, World Scientific Press. Although many books published by World Scientific are OK, they also publish some real dreck. In fact, I recommend that they add "real dreck" to the keywords for this new book.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One Hundred Years Ago Today

A hundred years ago today -- June 4 1913 -- a British suffragette, Emilie Wilding Davison, threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby, and was gravely injured. She died 4 days later. On the same day in France, Aristide Briand, a former Premier, almost died in a car accident. You can read about these events here.

But in Hamburg, Germany, another event took place that you won't find in any newspaper: my grandmother, Zipporah Levintan, boarded the Stockport to Liverpool, on the middle leg of a journey that would take her to join her husband (my grandfather) in Philadelphia.

In Hamburg she was likely helped by Jewish groups that assisted emigrants. Between 1901 and 1906, the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actiengesellschaft built an emigrant city in Veddel (the port area of Hamburg) with a canteen, a sleeping hall, and a synagogue. This wonderful page has pictures of the city and its buildings. Note the inscription "Mein Feld ist die Welt" on the wall in the emigration hall.

How she got to Hamburg, I don't know for sure. In 1912 she was living on Pokvrovske Street in Vitebsk (now in Belarus), according to a ship manifest for my grandfather, who had already emigrated the year before. ("Pokrovske" was the Yiddish name for "Pokrovskaya", the celebrated street where Chagall lived; today there is a museum honoring him there.) In 1913, according to a bank record, she was living in the small town where she was born: Velizh, Russia. Perhaps she would have travelled by land; the German government had set up immigrant checkpoints at Eydtkuhnen, on the border with Lithuania (now Chernyshevskoye in the Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia) and Ruhleben (near Berlin). Or perhaps she made her way to Lithuania or Latvia, and then caught a boat along the Baltic Sea to Hamburg. I only know that the manifest of the Stockport, which lists her previous place of residence (Bisheriger Wohnort) as "Kowno" (now Kaunas in Lithuania).

I haven't found a picture of the Stockport, but there is a postcard that shows its sister ship, the Bury, here. And this page tells more about the ship, which was owned by the Great Central Railway Company, one of a number of "feeder" ships that brought emigrants to ports like Liverpool for the longer transatlantic voyage that awaited them.

The ship manifest shows that my grandmother was accompanied by four children: Schmuel, age 9; Dwoire, age 7; Salman, age 3; and Mendel, age 17. I would know them by different names: Sam, who died four years before I was born; my Aunt Dorothy, my uncle Si, and my father's half-brother, Max, who died ten years before I was born. Like many Russian Jews of the period, they were leaving to escape persecution (my grandmother's grandfather was falsely imprisoned in the Velizh blood libel incident) and for a better life in America. As my uncle Si once wrote, "What if Washington Avenue was a dirty, grimy street? What if freight cars loaded with soot chugged up and down? What if the streets were not paved with gold as they had told us back in our little ghetto town in Russia? Here we had found something far more precious: freedom!"

The voyage to Liverpool took 10 days. I don't know for sure what the conditions must have been like, but since my grandparents were terribly poor, I imagine they were pretty awful. Unable to read or write, my grandmother must have found the trip baffling and frightening. She died in 1964, when I was only 6, so I never had the chance to ask her for her memories of the trip. For now, I leave her here in Hamburg, about to board the ship...

(To be continued...)

Saturday, June 01, 2013

More Academic Spam

Lately, I'm being spammed every day by journal announcements from Science and Engineering Publishing Company. Today I got one as follows:
Call for Papers

- Vehicle Engineering

Dear professor,

You are cordially invited to submit or recommend articles to Vehicle Engineering (VE, ISSN Print: 2328-1677), which is an open access journal dedicated to publishing the latest advancements in vehicle engineering research. The goal of this journal is to record the latest findings and promote further research in these areas. More relevant areas of this journal can be found at the VEhomepage.

About Open Access Publishing

Researchers around the world have full access to all the published articles, and download them for free. What is more, an open access article stands more chances to be used and cited than does one behind subscription barriers of traditional publishing model. Therefore your article's impact will be improved once you become an OA author.

Paper Submission Online

All manuscripts to be considered for publication in VE have to be submitted online. To submit a manuscript please visit the above website, select Submission and follow the appropriate prompts. 

Upon submission an editor will be assigned and s/he will make due arrangements to have the manuscript peer reviewed. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Relevant Areas
(not limited to the following fields)

Vehicle structure
Friction clutch
Manual gearboxes and overdrives
Hydrokinetic fluid coupling and torque converters
Automatic transmission
Transmission bearings and constant velocity joints


Contact US

I complained to the person listed as the Editor-in-Chief of this journal, Ahmed Elmarakbi, and he replied as follows:

"Please note that I have nothing to do with this journal. I have requested to get my name off the editorial board but it seems that my name still there. I will contact the people at Science and Engineering Publishing Company on Monday again to make sure that my name is off. Any issues with this journal you need to contact them directly. If they do not take my name out I will take further actions with them."

Sounds like a great journal when the editor-in-chief claims he has nothing to do with it.