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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Seeing the World in a Grain of Sand: The Challenge of Genealogical Data

I have just become overwhelmed with the disparate aspects of genealogy: the minutiae and the universal. As the saying goes that you can see the world in a grain of sand, you can also see the whole human family in one individual. Here is the quote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Blake, William. 1905. Blake's Auguries of innocence. [London]: Pr. for E.V. Lucas.

Blake was probably not thinking about all of the challenges of regularizing and correcting 150 years of genealogical research done by hundreds of my relatives but the quote does provide a little perspective about the challenges of taking a longer view of the problems. I often say that I am trying to teach genealogy one person at a time and when all is said and done, that is the only way I have found to make any real progress.

Not too long ago, I was helping a patron at the Brigham Young University Family History Library when he asked me why I did genealogy. I responded and asked him whether his question was directed at a religious motivation or a some other. Of course, I do have a fundamental religiously motivated reason for being involved in genealogy, but so do a few million other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But what is my motivation for spending so much of my time and effort going far beyond mere involvement or belief?

In response to the patrons question, I mostly shrugged off any discussion of ultimate motivations and focused on helping him find Arabic language resources in the Library. But the question apparently lodged itself in my mind. Why do any of us who call ourselves genealogists become more than casually involved in a subject as complex and challenging as historical research? Part of the reason is that our background and our interests coincide with the skill set necessary to be involved in this particular type of activity. I have a lot of interests and could have a lot of time-consuming hobbies, but over the last thirty plus years, genealogy is the only interest that continues to survive for any long period of time.

When I began working on my family lines the main challenge was the huge amount of paper records my initial survey generated. But as the years pass, I now see way beyond any mere paper-based context and have moved on to seeing vast quantities of data accumulated online in the huge family tree programs. 

It would be easier, I suppose, to focus on one ancestor at a time, but in correlating my family research with all those who are working on different family lines, my attention moves from line to line and from individual to individual. It was a much simpler time when the research was mostly linear.

My best guess is that I relate to genealogy the same way William Blake related to the physical and spiritual nature of the world. If you read the entire poem called Auguries of Innocence, you will see that Blake was illustrating the relationship between the seemingly inconsequential acts of man and their eternal effect on mankind. Likewise, I see the relationship between creating a unified and consistently accurate record of each family's history in the context of the eternal nature of the work. To Blake, killing a fly or a caterpillar had eternal consequences. To me, correcting and cleaning up a huge family tree has the same eternal consequences. It is only by focusing on the minutiae that I can actually see the eternal.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

How to protect yourself online for genealogists

It has been said that the only way to protect your computer from being hacked is to not have one and if you do have one, never turn it on. But that, like all other such statements is far from realistic. I remember back to the days when we first began using personal computers, as they were called at the time. I owned an Apple dealership at the time and we had several models of Apple computers set up on the sales floor for demos. A customer came in an after a few minutes informed me that all of our computers had a computer virus. I was incredulous. I thought it was a joke. But he kindly showed me the problem and that began my involvement with viruses, Trojan horses, worms, Phishing scams and all the rest. For a more complete list of malware, see Wikipedia: Malware

Yesterday, my wife got an email that said our Subaru had been recalled. She opened the email and read me the contents before I could stop her. Fortunately, she was on her iPhone rather than her computer. I immediately, went online and found that the problem in the email was bogus. There was a recall, but our car was not affected. The email was most likely a phishing scam to get us to click to another website. Had the email been on her computer rather than a phone, she might have infected her computer by simply opening the email. In any event, by opening the email, she likely confirmed to the sending party that the email address was active and available for further phishing. Real recall notices come through the paper mail.

If you live in a large city, you probably are aware that certain areas of the city are dangerous to enter alone after dark. You are probably careful to lock your doors even when you are at home. You may have a security system and even camcorders viewing your property. You are careful to lock your car and do not leave valuables in open view. All of this becomes second nature to those of us who live in large cities, but are not so common in smaller, outlying towns and villages.

The truth is the second you get on the internet, you are now in the largest city in the world and there are dangers at every corner and turn. But just like living in a large city, self protection becomes an ingrained habit. I can still travel and function in a large city even though I know it is dangerous and I can still operate on the internet without too much concern, because I know how to react by habit and long experience.

I still hear about people who "surf" the internet. Surfing the internet is like walking around in the dark in a large city. You are simply asking for trouble. My first rule of safe, online computing is to be careful and direct all your searches to specific topics that you control. Sometimes, you cannot control the links and websites that appear in a search, but random clicking is sure to produce unwanted and dangerous results. Obviously, it you are looking for trouble, you will find and find it quickly. Filth and sleaze is common and can become highly addictive. The internet is a great and wonderful source of information, but it is also a trap for those who do not know enough to act for their own good.

Here are some websites with basic information about computer safety.

Yes, there is a risk. Life is full of risks, but we learn to manage our risks against our benefits. The key to avoiding nearly all of the bad parts of the world of computers is to become educated about the nature of the risks and patterns of behavior that increase those risk factors. 

The Cake Boss Buddy Valastro Will Keynote, Judge at RootsTech 2017

The RootsTech 2017 Keynote Speakers just keep getting more and more interesting. Today's announcement is as follows:
SALT LAKE CITY, UT, 27 October 2016)--RootsTech, the largest family history conference in the world, is pleased to welcome the popular Italian-American celebrity chef, Buddy Valastro, also known as the hit TLC series, Cake Boss™ as a keynote speaker on Saturday, February 11, 2017, in Salt Lake City. Valastro will also judge a local cake decorating contest hosted by RootsTech.
I have a couple of daughters that would probably do very well in any cake decorating contest. You can see some of their cakes on our food blog, Family Heritage Recipes, a living heritage of good food!  If you are not familiar with Buddy Valastro, I suggest reading the blog post entitled, "Five Ingredients That Make Up the Cake Boss." With my wife's family background in cooking and the tradition being carried on by my five daughters and two daughters-in-law, I should be well aware of the importance of food in family history.

The first ever cake decorating contest at RootsTech 2017 is described as follows:
In addition to keynoting at RootsTech 2017, Valastro will help judge the first-ever RootsTech cake decorating competition. 
There will be four different categories to compete in—wedding, birthday, holiday, and graduation—and there will be three finalists and one grand prize winner selected in each category. Cakes will be on display Saturday during RootsTech and Family Discovery Day where thousands of people will view and have a chance to vote for “People’s Choice” winners in each category. Official rules and entry information for the contest will be available soon at
I am sure that there will be some stiff competition in Utah for this event.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

United States House of Representatives, History, Art and Archives

Just when I think you might have some idea about the vast digitized resources on line, I always seem to find another huge archive, This time it is the United States House of Representatives, History, Art and Archives. As the website explains, it is a "collaborative project between the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House's Office of Art and Archives. Together, the offices serve as the House’s institutional memory, a resource for Members, staff, and the general public."

This archive is completely searchable. I tried to include some screenshots, but for some reason they did not work. Here is another try at getting them to work.

Here is the search section of the website.

Ignoring the Online Miracle with Misconceptions: Part Two - The Paper Trap

To some genealogists paper is reassuring. It is familiar and seems permanent and durable. On the other hand digital technology seems evanescent and transitory. If I give my email address to some one who is paper-based, they will try and find something to write on and a pencil or pen. If I give my email addresses to some one who is tech-based, they will take out their phone and put me in as a contact. As long as I can remember, I have been bound to a calendar and a "day timer." Keeping track of my schedule has been one of the major challenges of my life. On the other hand, with a centralized, online calendar, I have managed to keep a complex schedule going for many years with a minimum of missed appointments even with almost constant changes. Probably one of the most obvious examples of transition is the computer with rows of paper Post It Notes stuck across the bottom of the screen.

The issue of paper vs. digital is a much deeper and more complex problem for genealogical researchers. It is true that much of the world's genealogically valuable information is still on paper or the equivalent microfilm. It is also true that some people simply feel more comfortable looking at a piece of paper than they do working on an electronic device. But if you look around, you will start to see that this is not an either/or situation but an issue of obtaining a balance between the two forms of record keeping and communication.

For example, my wife is not likely to stop sending paper birthday cards to our grandchildren any time soon. She would not consider sending an "electronic" card. Equally, some genealogists will always refer to a paper pedigree chart or keep paper copies of documents and research notes. But in thinking about this subject from time to time, I realize that the main reason that almost everything I do is not on some type of electronic device (I am writing this on my iPad Pro) is because it is a huge and difficult effort for me to hand write anything for any period of time. I learned to type in high school and have been typing almost everything since then. I also love the way my computer corrects my spelling and most of my typos as I am typing along.  What I see as a major obstacle to digital integration is an inability to type (or keyboard or whatever).

Why have I returned to one of my common themes in the context of misconceptions? Because there really are a lot of misconceptions about the transition from paper to digital. The first misconception is the idea of paper's permanence and duribility. A paper copy of my calendar, for example, can only exist in one place at one time. If I misplace my paper calendar, which I have done by the way, I am essentially lost. On the other hand, as I add entries to my online, electronic calendar, I instantly have a copy of the entry on every one of my devices. If I go to the library and do some research and write all my notes on paper, like I used to years ago, I often fail to look at that research ever again and I often lost the notes in my huge pile of similar notes. But if I enter the information immediately into my centralized and ever present family tree program, I always keep going. Sure, the paper is durably lost in my piles of paper.

When I was young, one common occurrence, especially in the summer was having our electricity go off and thereby plunging us into the dark. Today, barring a natural disaster of some kind, our electrical power is rarely off and if it is off, it is only for a few minutes or so. Some genealogists cite a loss of power to electronic devices as an incentive to keep writing things down on paper. The misconception here is that they would be doing genealogical research in the dark during a power failure. We can all imagine dystopian scenarios where there are no longer any of the more common, current devices available, but really, are you also imagining yourself doing genealogical research in an end of the world type situation?

One of the most common genealogical issues I encounter is the situation where someone is trying to find the origin of an immigrant ancestor. I was recently helping a patron at the BYU Family History Library with some research about her ancestor. She had spent years looking for his origin. We made some progress, but she had to leave. She returned at a time when I was not in the Library and asked for help from another missionary. She discovered that this missionary was a relative and had been searching for the same ancestor and making progress. This is the misconception that we are all alone in our search for our ancstors which is reinforced by having all the research on paper and isolated from all the other family members who might be working on the same problem. If we work online in a collaborative environment, like the Family Tree, then we have a much greater possiblitity of finding other relatives with more information than we have been able to find.

There are obvious advantages to working on electronic devices and most of these advantages are only apparent to those who have integrated electronic devices into their research. It is a misconception to think that a paper based system of research is somehow superior to a digital one.

See the first part of this series here:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The End of Privacy From a Genealogical Perspective

Recently, there have been several huge internet hacking events. Hacking of emails has even made it into U.S. national politics. Whether we like it or not, genealogists are included as the victims of this nefarious online activity. The compromised information includes everything from bank records to credit card and social security numbers. What is even more disconcerting are the revelations of government surveillance of Google and Yahoo accounts and even telephone records for ordinary U.S. citizens.

In a Pew Research Center report entitled "The state of privacy in post-Snowden America," those surveyed indicated that they had taken the following actions to avoid surveillance:
Some 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints, but many say they would like to do more or are unaware of tools they could use. The actions that users have taken range from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet protocol (IP) address. And 55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations or the government. Many say the purpose of their attempted anonymity is to avoid “social surveillance” by friends and colleagues, rather than the government or law enforcement. 
At the same time, many express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online. When asked if they feel as though their own efforts to protect the privacy of their personal information online are sufficient, 61% say they feel they “would like to do more,” while 37% say they “already do enough.” Even after news broke about the NSA surveillance programs, few Americans took sophisticated steps to protect their data, and many were unaware of robust actions they could take to hide their online activities. Some 34% of those who said they were aware of the NSA surveillance programs in a July 2013 survey (30% of all adults) had taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. But most of those actions were simple steps, such as changing their privacy settings on social media or avoiding certain apps, rather than tools like email encryption programs, “don’t track” plug-ins for browsers or anonymity software.
 These types of actions show an innate distrust of many online companies and government activities. As genealogists, some of this distrust spills over and is applied to online genealogical programs. The Pew Research Center report also shows that few American adults are confident that their records will remain private and secure. I encounter this distrust and insecurity regularly as I talk to people about putting their family records online. The irony of this situation is that genealogists are concerned about putting their ancestral information online when much of the information they have acquired came from public and very accessible sources such as United States Federal Census Records and vital records.

As a genealogist I would rather not see or have online information about any personal records of living people. The fact that most of the large online genealogy programs make an effort to keep that information private, does not console me.

But what is reality? What is privacy in today's saturated world of communication technology? The answer is very difficult to ascertain. For example, financial information is anything but private if you have a bank account and use credit cards, almost every transaction you make is highly public in nature. There is precious little information about you and your family that cannot be discovered if someone had enough time and money to do so.

Genealogy is not about you. It is about dead people and dead people have no privacy. As long as you don't put any of your own "private" information on a family tree online, you are no better or worse off for the effort from the standpoint of privacy. Genealogy is not a privacy issue. The only real issue out there is the ridiculous and silly continued use of grandparents names or other such information for "security" purposes. Bottom line, genealogy is not a privacy issue.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Denial of Service (DDoS) and Genealogy

Despite our seemingly advanced technology, we can still do very little about the weather and it seems like we are also learning that we can do little about attacks on the internet that disrupt large portions of the county's online activity. As genealogists become more and more dependent on their own electronic devices we are among those thrown out into the rough internet weather along with the rest of the world.

This past week we have suffered through two outages; one extremely local and one wide spread across the United States. First, it is important to understand that neither of these events had anything to do with a loss of our data.

The local event involved a reported upgrade of the firewall protecting the Brigham Young Library the ended up knocking the website off the network but only in the Library and not anyplace else. This was not one of the regular lapses in service we have seen from FamilySearch, this one lasted a day and half and was caused by the internal security concerns of the Library technical staff, or so it was reported. The effect was that a large class got cancelled and we were prevented from providing support using for the duration of the outage. The Library was very quiet for the day and half it took to remedy the situation.

From my own standpoint, I have converted almost all my classes and presentations to previously prepared slide shows either in Apple's Keynote or Microsoft Power Point to avoid the issues that loss of connection to the internet often cause.

The second and more serious outage did not impact our access so much as it could have. The genealogy programs kept operating despite a huge Denial of Service attack on a major internet service provider. As USA Today points out in its article entitled, "Hacked home devices cause massive Internet outage:"
SAN FRANCISCO — Eleven hours after a massive online attack that blocked access to many popular websites, the company under assault has finally restored its service. 
Dyn, a New Hampshire-based company that monitors and routes Internet traffic, was the victim of a massive attack that began at 7:10 a.m. ET Friday morning. The issue kept some users on the East Coast from accessing Twitter, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, Tumblr, Reddit, PayPal and other sites. 
At 6:17 p.m. ET Friday, Dyn updated its website to say it had resolved the large-scale distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) and service had been restored.
The outage was enabled by the attacker's remote control use of internet connected devices such as alarm systems and  security cameras to flood the websites with millions and millions of signals that effectively disrupt the ability of the website to operate. As individual users of the internet, there is nothing you or I can do to prevent this type of takeover. Understanding how or why this happened is really a lot like the weather. I may understand why I am stranded in the snow or being flooded out, but that knowledge adds nothing to my ability to overcome the problem. Likewise, the technicians' explanations about how such an internet outage occurs, does nothing to keep the same thing from happening again and again.

How does this impact genealogists? Despite the fact that this particular outage did not affect file storage, it does point out the underlying fragile nature of the internet. For some time now, using online storage has been touted as a solution to our backup and file storage issues. As I have in the past stated many times, we always need to be careful to back up our genealogical data to a variety of devices and services. It is still ultimately important to back up you work to external devices such as multiple hard drives or flash memory drives as well as the judicious use of online storage.

By the way, I was out camping in southern Utah during the general outage and was off the network and without mobile phone service at all and didn't learn about the whole problem until we returned to mobile phone coverage. Likewise, unless you happened to be using one of the websites that was knocked off the internet, you probably missed the whole thing. This reminds me of living in the low deserts of Arizona where it could be raining on one side of the street and not the other.