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“If Any” and The Null Hypothesis

By Daniel Hubbard | November 1, 2015

There is a concept in statistical testing called “the null hypothesis.” It would be somewhat difficult to perform experiments on our ancestors to check statistically what records they would leave behind under different conditions and learn the probabilities of those records being preserved to our time. Simply put, we can’t do statistical tests on our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of the null hypothesis isn’t useful for genealogists.

Let’s say you are interested in an ancestor named John Doe. You know about when he was born and approximately where he lived. You look for records of a John Doe that match what you think that you know about him. You collect records but gradually realize that there is no way that they can all be records for the same person. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it turns out to be pretty obvious that there are four different men named John Doe represented by your records. At that point, it might be tempting to wonder “Which of these men is my ancestor?” Is that really the right question to ask?

There is a hidden assumption in the question “Which of these men is my ancestor?” The assumption is that one of them actually is your ancestor. It isn’t obvious that is true. The null hypothesis would be that none of the men whose records you have collected is your ancestor. That is an important idea to check. Even if it isn’t done consciously, the alternative is to take the man who fits best and add him to your family tree. Yet that fit might not be good enough to rule out that null hypothesis that all the men on your list are wrong. There is one little phrase, just two words, that can be added to the question that help us to remember all the possibilities—”if any.” The question becomes “Which of these men, if any, is my ancestor?” Those two little words may not put you on the right road, but they at least help to make sure that you don’t accidentally close off the right road.


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Genealogical Illusions

By Daniel Hubbard | October 25, 2015

We don’t actually experience reality. We experience our model of reality plus some immediate sensory inputs. The inputs serve not just to fill in the immediate holes in our model but also to update the model as well. That sounds a lot like research. We gather information until we can build up a model of what happened. Inputs that come in after the model is constructed may reinforce the model, adjust the model, or significantly alter the model. When our model and reality have subtle mismatches, the result can be an optical illusion.

Squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray.

Squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray.

The documentary that got me thinking showed an image of a checkerboard with dark and light gray squares. The image also contained a cylinder which cast a shadow across the board. We have no trouble deciding which squares are dark and which are light, in or out of the shadow. Yet the “light” squares in the shadow are exactly the same as the dark squares outside the shadow. We see only partially with our eyes. The rest we “see” with our model of the world. Our model of the world prevents us from being confused by the shadow and missing the pattern of light and dark squares. At the same time our model is fooling us into thinking that the light shaded square in the shadow appears to be lighter than the well lit dark square, even when they are exactly the same. Magicians take advantage of our mixture of model based seeing and actual sensor input all the time.

Genealogical Illusions

How much does our model influence our research? Context can play a big role when interpreting subtle data. Differences in culture between our model and our ancestors actual cultures can lead us to think that things that were highly improbable when they could easily have happened. Does our model tell us that if a record doesn’t exist, then the event that it would have recorded never happened? If it does, is that right or is our model missing some known record loss? Lately, I’ve been working in some records of a court of petty sessions in Ireland. Does a man being no longer recorded in them tell me that he moved away, or does it tell me that he got better at keeping his pigs in their pens, or perhaps that the constable, who perhaps really did not like him, died or moved away? Am I looking at a genealogical illusion?

The cure for illusions, both optical and genealogical, is to carefully check, and not relay on our models when things seem questionable. I have a lot more checking to do in those Irish court records. On the other hand, I’ve already done a measurement on the checkerboard illusion above. The RGB color values of squares A and B are R=102, G=102, B=102 for both. Our model, useful as it is for seeing the pattern, fails when it comes to seeing the actual shade.


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The Chicago Cubs and Deep Time

By Daniel Hubbard | October 11, 2015

1906_Chicago_CubsThis is an odd time of year for any fan of the Chicago Cubs. October is the time to consider who should be traded, wonder if there is hope for next year, wonder if they will ever return to the World Series, and generally think off season type thoughts. Yet, somehow this year there are games still to be played.

I never met any of my great-grandparents. Of course, as a genealogist, it isn’t so surprising that I know a great deal about them. I know for example that one of my great-grandfathers was a Cubs fan. My mother has told me that she remembers him listening to games on his radio. The Cubs were founded as the Chicago White Stockings in 1870, when my great-grandfather was only a few months old. They joined the new National League in 1876 and won the first league pennant behind a starting pitcher who won 47 games and a batter with a 429 average. Those numbers alone, tell any baseball fan that it was a very, very long time ago. Today a pitcher that wins 20 is rare and a batting average one hundred points lower would be remarkable. In the first ten years of the league, Chicago won the pennant six times. Perhaps that is when my great-grandfather became a fan.

The turn of the last century brought the somewhat ominously named “dead ball era” when hits were few and runs were hard to come-by. I certainly hope that my great-grandfather was a fan by then. Supposedly the Chicago Colts, as they were then known, had so many young players, that they got the nickname “Cubs.” Their star pitcher was the aptly nicknamed Mordecai “three finger” Brown. Their double play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” is still remembered even if people don’t know who they were or even for what team they played. In 1906 the Cubs won 116 games, and recorded the highest winning percentage ever for a major league baseball team by winning over 76% of the time. In 1907 they won the fourth ever World Series, and they won again in 1908, and have not managed to win the World Series since. The longest championship drought in professional sports currently stands at 106 years. Perhaps that is where some of my genealogist’s appreciation of deep time originates. Most people think in terms of years, or perhaps, decades. Cub fans and genealogists must think in terms of centuries.

Well, great-grandpa, as I write this, the Cubs have re-earned their nickname with lots of very young players, they have a pitcher whose statistics look like something out of the dead ball era, and it may be October but the drought-meter is stubbornly refusing to click over to 107 years. Tonight their pitcher drove in a run in the postseason with a sacrifice bunt. The last time a Cub pitcher did that was 1906. We’ll see how it goes, you and I.

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Corrupt Ancestors (and Other Hard Drive Problems)

By Daniel Hubbard | October 4, 2015

This will be a short and belated post. A few days ago, my ancestors became corrupt. I didn’t find them in prison or court records. I found that they were imprisoned on my computer’s hard drive. Presumably they were doing hard time.

When I would normally have been writing something genealogical, I was instead erasing a hard drive. Not something for the faint of heart, but it might have been much worse. Let’s cover the moral of the story first-

Back up your data.

If necessary, to convince yourself that this is important, follow these steps-

  1. Take a small USB hard drive that is not currently connected to anything.
  2. Hold it by the end of the cord away from the hard drive.
  3. Lift it so that the drive dangles at eye level.
  4. Set the disk gently swinging, left and right.
  5. Repeat quietly to yourself, “I will stop swinging this disk like a nincompoop, and instead use it to backup my data.”
  6. You can stop swinging the disk once your trance becomes deep enough to overcome all anti-backup inertia and actually back up your data.

The worst part of my hard disk problem was the time wasted trying to fix it some clever way. When I eventually realized that the best thing to do was to bite the bullet, take a deep breath and make use of my backups, it went fairly smoothly. I’m pretty paranoid about backing up. I have and incremental backup that is updated every hour to an array of hard drives. Even if one drive fails, the data is still there. I also have a clone that is updated daily. A clone is a special type of backup, not a new offspring type that you can set in your genealogy software. When all else fails, a clone can be used as a boot drive for starting your computer. I couldn’t start my computer from its drive but I could start it just fine from the clone. I knew of a few files that had been updated, so once I got the computer started, I could find them on my hard drive and copy them to a thumb drive, just to be sure I had them.

Then I did the scary thing. I erased my computer’s hard drive. Even if you are sure that you have everything on a back up, pressing that erase button is hard. Once it was erased, I copied my clone to it and my computer was fine. All I needed to do was to restore the few files that I had updated. Now it starts up just like normal.

Let’s repeat the moral of the story-

Back up your data.

Your flesh and blood ancestors may never have needed a “Get out of jail free” card, but you never know when your digital ancestors might become imprisoned if you don’t back up.

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Spam! Spam! Spam!

By Daniel Hubbard | September 27, 2015


The Monty Python sketch that gave us our term for unwanted email.

Ancestors, everyone has them, and spam, everyone gets it. So, I hope you’re asking yourself, where’s the connection, beside the ubiquity, that is.

A lot of the spam that I have gotten lately is of what I think of as the “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper” variety. You can send a message with that opening to a lot of people and a significant fraction of the recipients will fall into that category. How many of them will be suckered into believing in whatever prize the sender claims they have won is another matter. The point is that so many people fall into that category, that it can be used at random with a significant chance of being right. You might also get email warning you that it has been detected that your copy of Windows is in serious need of a security patch. Said patch can be downloaded by clicking on a link in the email. Once again, lots of people will be reading that email on a machine that runs Windows. Presumably some subset of them will believe it. Once again, there is a reasonably high chance that sending those emails at random will result in a large fraction of the recipients being people running Windows. Believing that it is for you personally, just because an email is addressed to “Walmart Shopper,” or that because an email is sent about Windows and you’ve got a Windows machine, that it must be legitimate, are clearly mistakes.

When we think about the implications of evidence we find in genealogical research, we need to think about coincidence and probability as well. Some evidence can be like those examples of spam. It looks legitimate on the surface, it looks like something interesting, and yet it only seems relevant. If enough people look at it, someone is bound to concluded it is close enough to be relevant. Remember, that someone might be you. Of course, to someone else it might be real evidence, but to you it is just coincidence. It might be random chance or it might be a cousin of the person for whom you’re searching, named for the same ancestor. Either way, they only way to think about these things is to think about the probabilities. What is the probability of another person with the same unusual name in the same area? Higher than you’d think if there was an earlier ancestor with that name that both people are named for.

When you get an email that opens with “Dear Loyal Walmart Shopper,” you ask yourself if you are, in fact, a loyal Walmart shopper, if not, you mark it as spam. What if you really do shop at Walmart often? What if you really have an ancestor named Ichabod Wilkins? Then you take the next step and examine things more deeply.  Would Walmart send an email without any branding or mention of their website? Would Ichabod appear without any of the expected family members? Would an email from Walmart really come from What was your Ichabod Wilkins doing two states over from where he is expected to be? Would any legitimate business send you a prize claim form as a zip file in an email? Did destitute Ichabod really leave an enormous estate to a child you knew nothing about, and no one else?

Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on spammers. They are, perhaps, providing the best practical education in critical thinking there is, though unfortunately as a sort of natural selection by survival of the most wary.

Remember, critical thinking isn’t just good for recognizing the signs of spam, you can recognize the signs of illusory evidence about your ancestors too. So, in conclusion, please click here to download your free royal ancestor.

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Genealogy Related Injuries

By Daniel Hubbard | September 20, 2015

When I lived in Sweden, people would often joke about how a particular quirk in their thinking was a “work related injury.” It can happen to anyone. Some things become so deeply ingrained that they affect the way with think and it comes out in some odd ways.

So how does genealogy affect they way we think? Have you ever-

  1. said something like “Well, 1852 wasn’t that long ago” when a bit of history comes up during casual conversation?
  2. written the wrong century on a check?
  3. found yourself apologizing for forgetting someone’s name by telling them that, “Sorry, I’m a genealogist, I remember the names of dead people really well. It’s a good sign for you that I’ve forgotten yours.”
  4. used the word “died” when another person would have said “passed away”? (On a not so funny note, I’ve noticed this lately when people that I haven’t seen in a while ask how my father is doing. If I say that he died, there is a subtle hitch in peoples’ reactions that I don’t get when I say “He passed away.”)
  5. casually mentioned exploring cemeteries when everyone else in the conversation spent their weekend at the beach or the ballpark? Do you then wonder why they looked at you a bit funny?
  6. just assumed that everyone knows what NARA, FHL, LAC and GRO mean?
  7. written something using language that reads like it came straight out of a ca. 1880 county history?
  8. looked at a year ending in 0 and had your first thought be that it was a census year, totally independent of the context? (Canadian and U.K. readers, please substitute “1” for “0”. Come to think of it, bonus points to American readers that see dates ending in a “1” and think Canadian or U.K. census year.)
  9. anticipated the arrival in the mail of things that most people aren’t so keen on? Things like death notices and divorce proceedings?
  10. had the total at the grocery checkout, say $106.29, remind you of, say Cumberland County, Maine, Deed Indexes?

Any of that have a familiar feel to it?


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A Different Map of Time

By Daniel Hubbard | September 13, 2015

Tomorrow is the beginning of the new year in the Jewish Calendar. Though I don’t claim to be an expert in the workings of that calendar, I know that even that first sentence is problematic. What do I mean by “tomorrow”? Typically it might mean the 24 hour period following the next midnight. That doesn’t work here because in this case, the day ends and the new day begins at sunset. On different calendars those little squares that often indicate days, might not mean the same thing. There is another problem with that first statement but I’ll have to get to that later. That just this one simple sentence can be problematic in two different ways, says something about not taking things for granted.

There are many other factors besides when the day changes that go into the workings of a calendar. We tend to take them so much for granted that it is easy to assume that whatever date we look at, it must mean exactly what we think it means. Taking a look at another calendar, is like when one first realizes that there are languages beyond your native language. I don’t remember when I first realized that languages other than English exist, or exactly how I realized it. Most people probably first realize that other languages mean other words. It might not be until one actually studies a foreign language that one realizes that the rules of another language can be, and almost certainly are, different from the rules of your mother tongue. Much of what is interesting in languages and in calendars is how those rules differ. A different New Year is a fine time to think about those rules.


At least from a purely technical point of view, the day on which the year begins is arbitrary. A calendar can use any day as the first day of the year. In the Gregorian Calendar, the next year begins 365 or 366 days after the previous year, with that extra day being added to keep the calendar and the sun aligned. Of course there are other ways of deciding when a new year begins.

What if the solar year isn’t divided into roughly equal twelfths? What if the months are defined by the moon? The moon goes through its phases in a bit less than a twelfth of a solar year. Twelve lunar months is less than a solar year but thirteen is longer than the solar year. One could simply say that the year is twelve lunar months long and start the next year at the start of the next lunar month. One could also be a bit fancier and add a thirteenth month often enough to keep the calendar roughly aligned with the solar year, which is what the Jewish Calendar does.

Different calendars have different rules for how to adjust the year, if they bother to adjust it at all. How much does one adjust with a single adjustment? By a day? By a month? A mixture of the two? How often does one make that adjustment? Every few years according to some rule? Does one use special rules to avoid problematic adjustments? When during the year does one make those adjustments?

The Jewish Calendar adds an extra month every few years on a 19 year cycle. When does it do that? The simple answer is that the extra month is the twelfth month, but it is the twelfth month counting from the ecclesiastical new year, which occurs in the spring, not the civil new year which occurs around the autumnal equinox. Two different beginnings for the year in the same calendar might sound odd to many today, but a few hundred years ago in the English speaking world, the year began both on the first of January and on the 25th of March, depending on how one reckoned. That is the second problem with my first sentence. To be technically correct, I should have stated which new year I meant.

One might assume that adding an extra month would mean that there was no need to have a month like February, which has an adjustable length, but calendars are amazing things, and the Jewish Calendar has two months with adjustable lengths in order to prevent certain holidays (including Rosh Hashanah, civil new year itself) from falling on inappropriate days of the week. To try to put that into terms that might be more familiar to many people (myself included), it would be what would have to be done if Easter was defined not just to be on a Sunday, but on a specific date. The calendar would need to be adjusted by a few days in most years in order to force that date to be on a Sunday.

I sincerely hope that I got this correct. If I missed something, it only goes to show that in researching our genealogy, we can’t take the workings of the calendar in use for granted, and that mistakes are all to easy to make. Our calendar rules are what they are, we just can’t assume that the rules are simple or that our ancestors’ calendars followed the same rules as ours.

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Researching at the Veil

By Daniel Hubbard | September 7, 2015

A veil can be a piece of cloth used to hide a face. It can also be anything that conceals or obscures. “Beyond the veil” is defined as a hidden, mysterious place. I can’t think of any aspect of genealogy that doesn’t interest me, but there are some that hold a special fascination. One is researching at the cusp of that misty territory where surnames are still crystallizing and places were not yet organized as the are today, so that they are all but unrecognizable. Even the spellings of given names can be odd in that special way that things feel strange when they skirt the edge of the expected without ever feeling quite right. Dialect words and spellings can give whole groups of records that not-quite-right feeling. Handwriting isn’t necessarily “bad,” as it can be in any time period, but truly alien, bearing little resemblance to anything more recent, or even human. Records become uneven, but still dangle hope. It is hard to precisely define what that genealogical veil is, but eventually one learns to recognize it when one reaches it. You see the fog roll into view and you know you are there.

Foggy_meadowLately, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research where that fog bank begins. Places like the Margraviate of Baden and the Duchy of Berg, both places that might be considered Germany, yet the modern nation was still hundreds of years in the future, and at any time a dynastic squabble or marriage might make or break such a place. Given names have an odd ring. “Stingen” was not the lead singer for an early German-speaking version of The Police, but rather Christina. Men and women sometimes appear in records with only their given names; that was, apparently, enough. Other times they appear as being “of” a place. That place name was not their surname. If they moved, it would change, breaking the continuity that can normally be gleaned from names. Yet a son or a daughter might no longer have that “of” in their name. They might leave home and yet still retain that place in their names. A surname was perhaps being born, and, at the same time, it was hinting at their recent place of origin, the kind of double duty that can be so necessary when researching at the veil. The fog was perhaps just barely lifting.

I find special meaning at this place. Beyond it, the common man and woman begin to fade from view. Not just some people, the veil is not a brick wall that appears for that one troubling ancestor, it isn’t a troubling gap in the records, but a threshold. Beyond it, genealogy is still possible, but it is done in the fog and mist.

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The Genealogists’ Alphabet, part G

By Daniel Hubbard | August 30, 2015

Sometimes the past doesn’t need to be so distant to seem far away. Cleaning out things that the kids have outgrown turned up one of those typical alphabet books that are for children that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—

A is for appendix, written by the family sages.

B is for binding that broke and lost those pages.

So what might an alphabet book for genealogists might look like? I’ve already taken a stab at “A,”  “B,”  “C,”  “D,”  “E,” and “F.” So, for genealogists, what might “G” be for?

G is for Geography

“G” could be for “geography,” those twists of rivers, mountain passes, and impassable obstacles that provided boarders and determined which ways that migrants might travel.

“G” could be for “GAR,” three letters that tell you that you are dealing with a Union veteran.

“G” could be for “gedcom,” genealogy’s double edged sword, those files that allow information to be easily shared, but also make it easy for the unwary to add a nearly infinite variety of misinformation to their research at the click of a mouse.

“G” could be for “gps,” but which one? Perhaps the genealogical proof standard that guides us in our research, or perhaps the global positioning system that guides us to the cemetery then geotags our grave marker photos. Either one would fit in the genealogists alphabet.

“G” could be for “Germany,” a fine example of the problems we encounter. Americans may talk about their ancestors from Germany without ever realizing that at the time that their ancestor crossed the ocean, there was no such nation. When we use our mental models for one time period to try to understand another, we can be led astray.

Those are all fine words, but, the most important word beginning with “G” must be “Genealogy” itself. It is what we do. It is the study of our origins in the minutest detail we can manage. It is the careful examination of those people, those little nooks and crannies of history that contribute to who we are, and, perhaps, help us to understand the myriad origins of those around us.

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By Daniel Hubbard | August 23, 2015

When everything is connected to everything else, for better or for worse, everything matters.
Bruce Mau

I ran into that quote a few days ago. Bruce Mau is a designer and architect, not a genealogist, but this is one of those concepts that genealogist need to consider. We often think about researching an ancestor. We think about that as if it is an isolated act, with only those genetic relationships we place in our genealogical charts as being relevant. There are, though, many, many connections—to people, places, occupations, organizations… It all matters.

It matters to our research. Different connections provide different clues. Different light is thrown on our problems. Those connections may even help us to define that elusive ancestor. When names change, or are too common, it is those connections that can link together to form our safety net and let us determine who was who.

It matters to who our ancestors were. It isn’t just that those connections are useful to us in our research. It is that those connections were important to our ancestors in their lives. We cannot hope to understand them without those connections, because they would not have been who they were without them. Those connections hold and hint at some of the richness of those lives.

What connections have you documented for your ancestors? How have they proved useful? What connections might you have missed?

When everything is connected, everything matters when hunting ancestors.

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