RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Dearth of History Knowledge

I write about the subject from time to time because I an constantly reminded about the dismal state of history education in the United States. I very recently had the opportunity to review the history textbook used by one of my granddaughters in her junior high school history class. I can remember my own American History class from high school and recall that we never got past the U.S. Civil War. In my high school, the American History class was one semester and Economics was the second semester of the school year. I guess for that reason, I was not too surprised that my granddaughter's history book did not include anything about World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict (aka the Korean War), or any war since the Korean War, including the war in Vietnam. The entire westward expansion of the United States was covered in four pages. I guess the teachers and educators (two different categories) decided since they never got past the Civil War, there was no need to include those chapters in future textbooks.

Unfortunately, I find this same lack of historical awareness to be rampant among many of the members of our genealogical community. This is likely through no fault of their own, since they may have had the same experience I had in high school and earlier.

If you want to test your historical awareness, just consider the following list of dates and tell me what they all have in common? Unlike many published quizzes, I will not publish the answers at the bottom of the page. But I would suggest that if your ancestors lived in that part of America that became the United States, you may want to do a historical background check and determine if you need to search for information about your ancestors that pertains to the event's dates listed here.

  • 1675-1676
  • 1689-1697
  • 1702-1713
  • 1744-1748
  • 1756-1763
  • 1759-1761
  • 1775-1783
  • 1798-1800
  • 1801-1805, 1815
  • 1812-1815
  • 1813-1814
  • 1836
  • 1846-1848
  • 1861-1865
  • 1898
  • 1914-1918
  • 1939-1945
  • 1950-1953
  • 1960-1975
  • 1961
  • 1983
  • 1989
  • 1990-1991
  • 1995-1996
  • 2001
  • 2003

After looking through this list, if the dates don't start to look familiar, then you really do need to spend some time with a good U.S. History book and not one used in a junior high school. As I talk to patrons and volunteers and those who attend my classes, I sometimes feel like they believe that their ancestors lived in an isolated cocoon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Genealogical Noise

At some levels, genealogy is all about acquiring and processing information. Whether you are searching online or sitting in a church or library reading old parish registers, or involved in some other activity, you are either gathering, organizing, evaluating or recording information. But if you attempt to define "information" in some type of formal way, you soon find out that the standard definitions are slippery and circular. You end up with a hodgepodge of words that include; data, facts, intelligence, knowledge etc. that all seem to be defined by the same set of words. For example, here is one definition of information:

facts provided or learned about something or someone

Now here is a definition of the word "fact:"

a piece of information used as evidence

Notwithstanding our collective inability to adequately define exactly what we are seeking, as genealogists, we diligently pursue our task of searching out facts or information about our family. Back in 1948, an engineer/mathematician/cryptographer named Claude Shannon published an article in the Bell System Technical Journal entitled, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication." In this article and later publications, Shannon developed what is known as "Information Theory" and laid the foundation for digital computer design. One of the concepts to come out of these early developments is the idea of a "signal-to-noise ratio" or a way to analyze the amount of meaningful information (the signal) as compared to the background noise (the unwanted signal). 

As genealogists were are almost continually overwhelmed with unwanted signals or noise or in other words, the amount of useful information we find as opposed to false or irrelevant information or data. Some researchers are almost paralyzed with the amount of unwanted data they receive. The difficulty comes from not only the complexity of the data but the amount of data or information received. This is not necessarily a new situation, for example, if you are searching a microfilm for specific information about an ancestor, you have to process a lot of "noise" or unwanted data before finding the one or two facts you are searching for. Unfortunately, this kind of "noise" was relatively easy to handle, but today's levels of noise have become overwhelming. 

Some of the most common complaints I receive involve this unwanted genealogical background noise. Some of the newer programs have increased rather than decreased the amount of noise by providing automated systems that generate additional information when the receiver of the information, in this case the user of the program, has no idea of the relevancy of the information or how to process it. One example of this problem, I received today, was a notice that someone I did not know was having a birthday. In other instances, I get suggestions of family tree connections with others who are categorized as potential "relatives" in numbers that are overwhelming. In other programs, doing a search for information about an ancestor will produce numbers, sometimes large numbers, of matching family trees with repetitious entries of obviously wrong information.

All of these instances constitute genealogical noise i.e. unwanted signals that obscure the real or valuable information I really want to find. Several comments made to my recent posts expressed this frustration as it applied to the Family Tree program. Unwanted information, in the form of apparently random changes in the data, were viewed as a threat to the integrity of the researcher's own perception of the "facts." In this way, the changes were not viewed as attempts to conform differing opinions on the actual data, but merely as noise that destroyed or obscured the researchers "own" data which, in every case, was assumed to be correct. 

It is inevitable that the amount of genealogical noise will continue to increase. It will become increasing difficult to filter out the meaningful information from the unwanted signals. All you have to do to experience this phenomena is to watch the stream of information on for a few minutes or any other social networking website, and you will see what I mean about unwanted information. 

What many, if not most, of the genealogists who are overwhelmed with genealogical noise do not have is an efficient filtering system. Rather than continuing to view noise as an obstruction, they need to understand that noise, in some form or another, is always present in any system of communication. The genealogist facing an annoying or overwhelming amount of noise needs to think of ways to diminish the amount of noise or create mechanisms for handling the noise through a system of filters; either mental or actual physical. For example, if I do not want to receive notifications of the birthdays of remote relatives, I can usually turn that function off in the program by editing my preferences or settings. I can also develop ways to ignore any such messages. 

In my own case, I would be almost paralyzed if I did not develop adequate methods of filtering out unwanted signals or information. On a normal day, I can get well over 100 email messages and hundreds of other notifications. In my case, I have worked hard at managing that flow of information, especially when 90%+ of it is unwanted noise. The challenge is to filter out the unwanted noise without destroying the signal altogether. 

In the case of a program such as FamilySearch Family Tree, the noise comes from the nature of the program itself. Most genealogists are not at all used to the idea of instant and pervasive collaboration. They are so used to working by themselves, that information supplied by the users of the program in the form of "changes" are viewed as a threat to the integrity of the data rather than a normal function of the program. The researcher immediately jumps to the conclusion that "they are ruining my data" instead of viewing the changes for what they are; differing approaches to the same set of information. If the contributor changes "your information" you view this as a threat rather than merely another opinion about the data. The revelation that there are people out there who disagree with your own opinion is unsettling and threatening. Noise is not viewed as an inevitable component of the system, but as a personal threat. 

Many genealogists get into a situation where they are battling the noise rather than controlling it. For example, they view unsourced and unreliable family trees as a threat rather than simply ignoring them. With a shared data type of family tree, such as FamilySearch Family Tree, the genealogists become frustrated, angry, despondent, and finally condemn the system rather than working within a high noise situation. 

We all need to understand that we live in a world with a high noise content. We either learn to manage the noise or become incapacitated by it. I think I will need to return to this topic in the future because there is a lot to say about noise. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Yet again, another response about FamilySearch Family Tree

My dear friend Anonymous has once again chosen to leave a comment. This one is particularly aimed at FamilySearch Family Tree and leaves me wondering if all of my posts on the fact that "you don't own your ancestors" are going completely unread and unnoticed. Here is the comment:
Genealogy cannot be true genealogy unless it is based on true facts such as birth, marriage, death and other facts that can be proved. There is a lot of genealogy under Family Tree which is based on this basis, However, there is a lot genealogy based on factors such as 2nd opinions supported by Family Search which is destroying everyone's genealogy. I have worked on my genealogy for 55 years and have around 10000 files but Family Search is letting everyone into every other peoples genealogy to decimate, copy and destroy the genealogy. I have been trying for the past year and a half to save my genealogy but is a loosing battle with Family Search in charge. Now the only thing I am trying to do is get my genealogy off of Family Tree and save it.
I must say that this comment left me speechless for about 30 seconds (a long time for me). I am not quite sure what Anonymous's relationship is with's Family Tree. I sat there staring at this comment for some time, trying to gather my thoughts and come up with something coherent to say about this person's predicament. I must admit that I finally had to put this post aside for a while and think about what was written above. I even began to believe that it was a hoax. Hoax or not, it is an interesting quandary.

I guess I will take it a bite at a time.

Genealogy cannot be true genealogy unless it is based on true facts such as birth, marriage, death and other facts that can be proved.
Given all the posts I have written about defining genealogy, facts, proof and all that, I was puzzled about this comment. I think what Anonymous wants to say is that it is necessary to provide a source for entries in your family tree. I would certainly agree with that. I am not too sure about what I would consider "true facts" if those facts were based on documentary evidence. I would not be so sure that any given document provided "true facts" however. Every one of the types of documents named can be wrong in some cases.

There is a lot of genealogy under Family Tree which is based on this basis,
I am not sure what is "under" the Family Tree, but I assume the reference is to the fact that more of the entries on the Family Tree are being sourced all the time.

However, there is a lot genealogy based on factors such as 2nd opinions supported by Family Search which is destroying everyone's genealogy
I am not sure I understand what Anonymous thinks is going on here. I am also not certain how my genealogy is being destroyed. FamilySearch Family Tree incorporates over 150 years of combined research. Admittedly, some of the entries are wrong, however the structure of the Family Tree (a wiki) allows everyone to make corrections and enter supporting sources. None of these changes come from "Family Search" and FamilySearch is entirely neutral on the content unless it is objectionable in some way. It is up to those members families on the tree to correct the information. Apparently this concept is lost on Anonymous. There is nothing on the Family Tree that can destroy anyone's genealogy. It is very wise to have your own copy of your own files if you can't understand why and how the entries on a wiki will continue to change.

I have worked on my genealogy for 55 years and have around 10000 files but Family Search is letting everyone into every other peoples genealogy to decimate, copy and destroy the genealogy.
This statement seems to be a repetition of the previous one. I am not sure what 10,000 file means, but I assume that means that the person has 10,000 people in his or her database file (I always suspect round numbers since they are inevitably wrong). Since the Family Tree is unified, technically everyone in the world has their entire known family on Family Tree. Actually, it is still under construction and will be as long as there is any information left to add, but the actions of the contributors are not decimating or destroying anything. The serious issue I see here is the mention of the word "copy." Apparently, Anonymous is one of those people who do not want to share his or her research. Well, after 55 years, I suppose it could all be lost anytime now. One thing I can say for certain, if you or anyone else fails to share their "genealogy" with others, all their work will be lost. I hope Anonymous has a family member that will still talk to him or her and is willing to preserve all of the 55 year's worth of research.

I have been trying for the past year and a half to save my genealogy but is a loosing battle with Family Search in charge.
This statement assumes two false premises, one that FamilySearch is "in charge" of the data in the Family Tree and second, that there is some issue here with saving Anonymous's genealogy. I find that many people using the tree think their conclusions are right and everyone else is wrong. I wonder if Anonymous is putting sources with all 10,000 of the entries on the Family Tree? I am also wondering how he or she got all that information into the Family Tree in the first place and how many duplicates were made in the process? The users of the program, including Anonymous, are "in charge" of the data. I also wonder how many other family members Anonymous has contacted about helping maintain and correct the Family Tree? I might also point out that the Family Tree is still a work in progress and more information is still coming into the tree from the 150 years of accumulated research that is sitting out there to be corrected and merged. I hope Anonymous has his or her own copy of all that 55 year's worth of work or it may really be lost.

Now the only thing I am trying to do is get my genealogy off of Family Tree and save it.
This is the most puzzling statement of the entire comment. How does one go about getting their genealogy out of Family Tree? Short of manually copying the entries or using a program such as,, Ancestral Quest or Legacy Family Tree, I am not presently aware of a method of getting information out of the Family Tree. Once again, here is another claim of ownership which I see as the root of the problems expressed by Anonymous. It does not sound to me as if this person has heard of the word cooperation before.

I continue to be amazed every day at the attitudes expressed by some in the genealogical community, but I am glad for the comments because they keep me thinking and writing.

Off to Mesa, Arizona this week to the Mesa FamilySearch Library Conference

We are off to Mesa, Arizona this week for a brief visit to our home that still has not sold and to present at the Mesa FamilySearch Library Conference. Some of the homes in our area of Mesa have been on the market for almost two years. We are thinking of alternatives since there appear to be almost no qualified buyers. Unfortunately, we will be "off the Internet" for most of the time we are gone this week, so take some time to read some of the past posts your missed. I will post when I can during the week, but will be back and writing away on Monday, the 3rd of November for sure.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Changes at the Family History Library - More than Decorative

I got a post from FamilySearch entitled, "Exciting New Changes at the Family History Library." The changes are summarized as follows:
In an effort to beautify the Library and to enhance guest services and research specialist interactions, the reference desks on the B1, B2, and 2nd floors are being removed and new consultation areas are being placed on each floor. For example, the B1 International floor has separate reference areas for European, Nordic, and Latin American help integrated into the guest areas of the floor. A comfortable welcome area resides where the old reference desks used to be. The remodel will be complete by November 2014.
I am not sure that showing the Library completely empty gives you an idea about how this new set-up is going to work. Every time I have been there the last couple of months, I have found all of the areas to be crowded. I am not sure that having a couple of chairs and couch is going to be adequate for the people who need help. I am aware that they have cut their permanent, employed staff and transitioned to more volunteer consultants. I am guessing the next change is related to this reduction in employees:
New Service Model—In addition to the new reference areas, we have also implemented a new guest services model. To help guests get the assistance they need without waiting in lines, we have added a guest paging system. Volunteers are still available on each floor to help with questions, though when additional expertise is needed, guests can sign up for a consultation with a specialist during daytime hours Monday–Friday. To sign up, the guest can visit with a scheduler who will give them a restaurant style pager. The guest can then continue their research anywhere in the Library. Once paged, the guest returns to the welcome area of the floor where they will be greeted by a research specialist. The paging system is in use for B1 and B2, and will be available on the 2nd floor once the construction is complete.
This change comes complete with a "restaurant style" pager:

I am not quite sure what I am supposed to do if my question concerns the research I am supposed to be doing anywhere in the library. At some of the popular restaurants with pagers, I am always concerned about wandering off on the chance that I get out of range of the pager. Am I supposed to leave all my research papers, computer etc. somewhere in the library while I go back to the place to meet the consultant?

The next changes are interesting. they include the Family Story Booths on the main floor and a children's area. I was recently in the Library for a couple of days and stayed near both booths and the children's play area. I did not see either of the booths used or any children in the play area. From my two-day experience, I wonder if they are being used?

Interesting changes, I will be in the Library all week, October 27th through the 31st. I will give you all some more opinions about the changes after my week in the Library.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What happens when I upgrade my computer?

By Wgsimon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a plot of CPU transistor counts against dates of introduction. Note the logarithmic vertical scale; the line corresponds to exponential growth with transistor count doubling every two years.
Transistor counts for integrated circuits plotted against their dates of introduction. The curve shows Moore's law - the doubling of transistor counts every two years. The y-axis is logarithmic, so the line corresponds to exponential growth.

Upgrades to both hardware and software are a fact of life for anyone owning a computer system. The graph above illustrates Moore's law which has been, more than predicting, but also driving the computer chip industry since 1965. Quoting from Wikipedia: Moore's law:
The law is named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, who described the trend in his 1965 paper. His prediction has proven to be accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development. The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore's law: microprocessor prices, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras. All of these are improving at roughly exponential rates as well. This exponential improvement has dramatically enhanced the impact of digital electronics in nearly every segment of the world economy. Moore's law describes a driving force of technological and social change, productivity and economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
I have been living with these changes now since I first became intensely involved in computer technology in the early 1980s even though my use of computers dates more than ten years before that time. I am sitting here staring at an Apple iMac computer that is now so old that the current operating systems will not run and the computer has become little more than an attractive looking dust collector. You should be able to see that if the entire computer/mobile device/camera industry is changing every two years or so, the longer you keep your current computer (or whatever device), the more likely you are to have problems with compatibility. You can expect that after about five years, you computer will not be able to be upgraded to new system changes.

Now a word about operating systems. Operating systems are the software programs that let you communicate with your computer. Every time you use a computer or other computer-run device, the operating system has to start (boot up) before you can use the computer. All the keyboard commands, mouse, touch pad or touch screen commands are utilizing the operating system. In order for computer software programs to run on your computer, those programs must be compatible with the operating system version running on your computer. In turn, the operating system is designed to work with certain versions of the microprocessor, the engine that runs your computer.So every time you buy a new computer, it is likely that you will have a "new" version of the operating system. For example, right now if you were to go out on the market and look for a new Windows computer you will find low prices on "last year's model," that is, now that there are newer computers with Windows 8.1, there are still machines being sold with the older operating system, Windows 7, at a reduced price. However, there is another issue here. Windows 8 (and 8.1) have been less than popular and retailers are selling Windows 7 installed with the option to move to Windows 8.1. Right now on the Dell Computer website, there are Windows 7 "deals" being offered.

Computers are not like cars where the year-to-year changes are cosmetic in many cases. When a new processor is introduced the entire system has to change. In many cases, all of the existing software has to be upgraded (rewritten to work with the new operating system). Whether or not any existing program will "run on the new operating system" depends on how closely the program was tied to the operating system. There are some really old programs, such as Personal Ancestral File or PAF, that seem to keep operating notwithstanding multiple operating systems upgrades, but most of the software programs either upgrade to the new system or disappear. I might note that the danger of depending on a program as old and out-of-date as Personal Ancestral File, is that at any time a change or upgrade to the system could render the program inoperable.

Some people look at the cost of a new computer and fail to calculate the cost of upgrading or purchasing new software. Some companies give a price break on their upgrades, charging less than the full purchase price of a new program. From the standpoint of genealogists, the danger is that the new computer and operating system will not be compatible with your existing program and you may not be able to move your program and its database to the new computer. This problem can be avoided by migrating the data to a newer program if that is possible or storing your entire family tree on an online family tree program. It is very likely that the browser program (Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.) you use to access the Internet, will likely be upgraded constantly without your being aware of the changes.

But what about keeping the same computer for an extended period of time? What are the consequences of failing to upgrade your hardware (computer system)? Well, again, unlike a car, you can't just keep repairing it and keep using it for years and years. The longer you go without upgrading both your hardware and your software, the greater the danger of incompatibilities that will threaten you with a loss of your entire data files, i.e. you can lose everything on your computer. One common result of a computer failure is a loss of the data. This can possibly be avoided by backing up the data but there is also the danger that the backup will be incompatible with any newer system. This happens with genealogy programs regularly. Sometimes another company will try to "capture the market" by supporting the dead program for a while but you cannot count on this continuing for a very long period of time. A good example of this is the recent demise of The Master Genealogist (TMG) program. announced support for the databases from the dead program, but that is not likely to continue for and extended period of time, especially if there is an intervening operating system upgrade.

Technology changes constantly. It is time to get used to it. Computers are tools and, like any tool, subject to the wear and tear of use. Like any tool that becomes worn out, it should be replaced with a better tool.

The Scale of Time

If you walk along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon near Grand Canyon Village, you will find the remarkable "Trail of Time." Quoting from the website,
The Trail of Time is an interpretive walking timeline trail that focuses on Grand Canyon vistas and rocks to guide visitors to ponder, explore, and understand the magnitude of geologic time and the stories encoded by Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes.
As you walk along the rim, there are rocks selected from the different layers in the Grand Canyon. The distances between the rocks on the trail are representative of the scale of the time it took the rocks to form.

If you read this blog regularly, you are probably very used to asking yourself, what has this go to do with genealogy? However, in this case, the analogy is almost perfect. Just as geologists studying rock layers go back in time and look for evidence of changes and conditions, as genealogists we face the same challenges. We are standing on the Rim, so to speak, of our ancestral family, trying to reconstruct the past by looking at the different layers of records left to us. Just as with geology, there may be a great unconformity. In geology, the Great Unconformity I am familiar with is the one observed by John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon in 1869.

Before we can even identify a gap in records analogous to the Great Uncoformity of the Grand Canyon, we must be intimately familiar with our own ancestors' time scale. Some would call this a time line, but the idea of a time line is the embed events your ancestors experienced in a wider context of history. The time line also serves the purpose of verifying the sequence of events so you don't have mothers having babies at 110 years old and people getting married before they are born etc. I am going beyond that to think of the scale of time, that is what the effect over all of going back in time had on the people. Here is an example:

This is a record from the Family Tree. This is one of my "direct line" ancestors. The photo indicated by the circle and arrow in the upper left is supposed to be a photo of David Shepherd. There is just one small problem. He was supposedly born in 1760 and died in 1832. Now, this is exactly what I mean by a consideration of the "time scale." It is obvious to anyone with a sense of the time involved in moving back into the 18th Century that there were a lot of things we take for common today that were not available. One of those is the invention of photography. Do you know, off the top of your head without looking it up, when the very first photograph was taken? This type of consideration is more than just a time line. You could put his life on a time line and absent the addition of this one fact, the date of the invention of photography, your time line would look just fine. The person who attached this photo simply had no appreciation of the scale of time involved in moving back 254 years into the past.

This sort of problem comes up almost every day as I help people with their genealogy. I have people come to me and complain that they have been searching for an extended period of time for an ancestor and when I ask the time period when the ancestor lived, without batting an eye, they respond with something like the early 1600s. Once again, they are operating without a clue as to the time scale they are dealing with. I am certain that I could quiz any one of these people and they would not have the slightest idea of what the conditions were like in the early 1600s. In fact, if my own experience is any indication, very few genealogists have ever read a history book that would even give them an idea about what was going on back then. Without any concept of the time involved, you might miss some things such as the translation of the King James Bible in 1611 and various important wars and events in England. Again, it is possible that constructing a time line would include some or all of these events, but what is lacking is an appreciation for the scale of time involved.

Going back to the 1600s involves more than just dates and events, it involves an understanding of the conditions of the common people and the types of records that have been preserved. In the early 1600s, the invention of the power loom and the beginning of the industrial revolution were still almost 200 years in the future. It might help you to understand what I am talking about to realize that the first English dictionary arranged in alphabetical order was published in 1604. See Wikipedia: Table Alphabeticall. You might have to think about that fact for a few minutes to grasp the importance that has for genealogical research.

Oh well, I could go on and on. Time scale is an appreciation for the changes that have occurred in the past, not just a lining up of a series of events that have little meaning with an understanding of the changes that occurred from the past to the present. You gain an appreciation for the scale of time by learning about history and then thinking about it in terms of the changes that occur to the lives of your ancestors. What did they eat? What did they drink? What did they die of?