By Daniel Hubbard | July 27, 2015
I’ve been reading the book How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordon Ellenberg. Toward the end of the book, he briefly picked up one of my favorite themes, working to disprove hypotheses. He started of with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald-
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
I can’t vouch for that actually being able to sort out a “first-rate intelligence,” I don’t think it needs to be taken quite that literally to draw something useful from Fitzgerald’s statement. What we can take from the quote is a hint at the idea that we should be trying to both prove and disprove our hypotheses. One can only know in retrospect that work to prove, or disprove, a hypothesis was done in vain. “Retrospect” literally means “back looking.” The question is how much “back looking” one wants to risk needing to do. Working for years to prove something, only to learn that it was not true, is a lot of “back looking.” At the same time working to disprove something, only to find out that it really was true after all, means that time might have been better spent.
According to Ellenberg, the folk wisdom passed down from advisor to mathematics student is that one should work to prove an idea by day and to disprove it by night. Working like that might seem odd (and the day night split is not the mandatory way of handling it) but there are good reasons to work on hard problems this way. One I’ve already hinted at. It is a way of hedging one’s bets and reducing the time spent on the wrong thing. Another is that assuming that the attempts at disproof fail, those failures are informative. In genealogy they can start to build up negative evidence for your idea. If something could reasonably be disproven by land sale X, birth record Y or census entry Z and none of those things seem to exist, it might be telling you something. That thing could be that you’ve forgotten to check for probate records that would disprove your hypothesis, but it could also be telling you that there is very little wiggle room for your hypothesis to be wrong, and that is valuable knowledge. You have negative evidence for your hypothesis in that lack of evidence for other possibilities.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 19, 2015
Part of the very recent history of my family is my oldest daughter’s love for planets when she was little. Every night I read to her from my old National Geographic planet book. When that wore out, she insisted on being read to from the pages that were still held together by broken bits of spine. Some bedtime reading sessions included hunting through her bookshelf for the middle of the Jupiter chapter or the first two pages on Saturn, or whatever crucial bit was missing.
Obviously, I had to buy a new planet book. The new one had much better pictures, but she noticed that the pictures of Pluto weren’t really any better and were not very interesting. Just fuzzy patches. I explained that spaceships had been to the other planets (Pluto was still classified as a planet at the time) since the old book was made and so we had much better pictures of them, but Pluto hadn’t been visited yet. Imagine her excitement when a spaceship was launched toward Pluto. I had to burn a DVD of the launch from video on NASA’s website so that we could watch it. I think it was at the moment of launch that the announcer’s voice said something about New Horizon’s nine and a half year voyage to Pluto. After hearing that a few times, she announced that she was going to have a party when it arrived. Over the years we’ve gone onto NASA’s site every so often to see where New Horizons was. I think it was partially out of interest and partially because she had found memories of the planet book (long since out-grown) and her vow to have a party.
Last week she had her party. She baked a Pluto cake and frosted it according to the latest images, and surrounded it with cupcakes for the moons. She and her friends thought it was good geeky fun. The day of the party, I realized that I might be able to give her a little surprise. When I was a kid and getting interested in genealogy, my mom pointed out that she had an aunt whose maiden name was Tombaugh and that Clyde Tombaugh was the man who discovered Pluto. She didn’t know if they were related but wondered if it was possible. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Great-aunts by marriage weren’t my highest genealogical priority. These days research can sometimes go pretty quickly, and I wondered if my mom’s speculation might not be a fun thing to check. I knew where and when my great-aunt was born and Clyde Tombaugh has a Wikipedia page. It was easy to determine that she and Clyde were from about the same place and born only a few years apart. I would have known about it if they were siblings, but perhaps cousins?
A little census work showed that they couldn’t have been first cousins. A little more work and and I got back to a family indexed as “Farnbaugh” in 1850. Looking at the enumerators handwriting showed that the first letter couldn’t be “F.” A little more checking showed the first letter was “T” and that “rn” was “m,” and that the name was Tambaugh, a reasonable version of Tombaugh. Among the apparent sons of Matthias “Farnbaugh” were the the grandfathers of Clyde and my great-aunt, who were apparently second cousins. I drew it all out on scratch paper and handed it to her during the cake eating and told her I thought that it was correct but didn’t have enough time to do a real proof. Take a sufficiently excited/silly teenager and add a partially supported genealogical argument that her father’s great-aunt by marriage was the second cousin of the man who discovered Pluto and even a genealogist can add to the geeky space-based excitement.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | July 12, 2015
Genealogy is done backwards in time, from known to unknown. That is the way we ought to research, starting from a firm foundation and testing the surrounding ground for pitfalls. Our research doesn’t follow a solid line. It is dashed. We simply cannot know about every moment of every life we research. There are always gaps as we step backwards in time. It is natural to wonder if all is right or if we missed discovering a pitfall because we happened to step over it.
History, of course, unfolds forward in time. Thinking about our results forward in time gives a new perspective on what seemed obvious as we stepped our way back. It is obvious that when tracing a married couple backwards, that they lived in roughly the same place before they married. After all, they met somehow. Find a couple after their marriage, and find their respective families before their marriage, and it may seem very sure that we have the right people. Think about it forward. Retrace those steps. Follow as their immigrant parents start from different places at different times, cross the ocean, and then find new traces of them in the New World as neighbors. It seems inevitable when working in one direction, of course it was that way, and yet it is a thrill when thinking in the other direction, when working forward, when it is far from a given that two people will end up in the same place, at the same time, and find them there, where you hadn’t seen them before. That is an epiphany.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 28, 2015
I took another week off from blogging last week against my instincts, but it felt like the thing to do. My father’s fading came to an end. He passed away just before Father’s Day. I had thought I would have one last Father’s Day with him, but that was not to be. Of course, even if he had been aware of a visit, I know that he wouldn’t have remembered it, and even if he had remembered, he wouldn’t live long enough to think back upon it fondly. Some of the joy of celebrations comes from their transience, the fact that they can’t go on forever. Ironically part of the joy of transience comes with the time to remember. My father had no memory and as it turns out, no time either. It does remind me though that part of the joy of life, our own life, and the joy we find in others’ lives, comes from the fact that we know they cannot last.
I’d like to go back to a time to a few years ago, when my father still had memories and got some happiness from telling them to me.
March 6, 2011 Taking Walks with the Census Taker and my Dad
May 30, 2011 Interview with Dad
and March of this year, when his memory was fading but still good enough to know that there were things, like tuberculosis, that he did not want to remember.
Bye Dad…Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | June 14, 2015
It had been a long time since I have missed my regular weekly post, if I ever have, but last week I missed. There is a reason. Life, or rather the end of life, takes priority. Four and a half years ago, my father realized that his memory was just starting to fade and wrote his memories down before it was too late. Now, his memory is nearly gone, perhaps totally gone. Three days ago, I had what has become a typical conversation with him. He could not remember where he was or who was the nurse’s aid in his hospital room. He thanked me for visiting and was shocked when I mentioned that it was my fourth visit that day, but moments later he described a barn that his sister and brother-in-law had owned decades ago. I knew what he was talking about. Some of my childhood memories are of that barn. He asked a question he’d asked already ten times in the last hour then said that he’d be rich if he had a dime for every time he asked that question. He remembered forgetting.
That is the way it has been. One moment he couldn’t remember that his siblings have all passed away, the next moment he would remember an obscure and verifiable fact or mention how proud his father would be to know that my family and I live in the house that he built. A moment later he asked me where I lived. He looked at the whiteboard on the opposite wall, noticed the date and realized that he had just had a birthday. Yes, Dad, you have lived a long time. The next morning he recognized a niece who visited and called her by name. A bit later he knew that my mother and my sister entered the room. When I entered about half an hour later, he clearly knew that someone entered the room and I think he knew that it was me. I can’t be sure that he has been aware of my visits since.
A few weeks ago, after his last trip to the emergency room, he was tested by an occupational therapist. His memory was confirmed to be virtually gone, but his reasoning was still intact. He could count backwards from 100 by sevens faster than the therapist, but he couldn’t remember where he lived—functioning reason without the ability to remember what to reason about.
Preserving memories and reconstructing pasts is what I do. I have the nearly forty typed pages of his memories sitting on the desk next to me. How strange that I have them and he no longer does. I have my memories of him too, but soon, perhaps very soon, he will be gone. He cannot remember his past. His future has nearly run out.
Toward the end of a meeting with the hospice nurse two days ago, I got a message from my son. He had already pitched the first inning of his first playoff game. Would I be there soon? The nurse said something about the split we live with at times like these and said that I needed to go. So Dad, there is the future. It just sent me a text.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 31, 2015
Being unsure is a pretty common thing in genealogy. It is an inherent part of research to be uncertain and to work to reduce the uncertainty. One of the things that can go wrong in research is to forget to have doubts.
Usually the uncertainty we have is because we suspect we might have the wrong person, have records that disagree, or that have secondary information. There are certainly other reasons why one might feel uncertain.
Sometimes the records themselves tell us that we should be uncertain—not in any implied way way either, but quite explicitly. One of my favorite census records* has a marginal note made by the enumerator. It reads “The best information I could get.” That is pretty clear. It tells us that even the enumerator doubted the quality of the information. It also tells us something of the difficulties enumerators faced. In this case it was interviewing without a common language. It may also tell us something about the personality of that enumerator. It is easy to forget that our ancestors weren’t just the ones who were recorded, they might also have been among the ones who did the recording. If your ancestor was the one who made that note, what would it tell you about him? It wasn’t every enumerator that left warnings about data quality, though many should have.
This week I was reading some old English parish registers, or to be precise, bishop’s transcripts. I ran into another example. An entry in the 1628 christenings caught my eye, because it didn’t quite fit the pattern of the others. It added the word “supposed” in front of the word son. The minister who wrote that might have meant that the child was illegitimate. He might have been expressing his doubts. If it is the latter, it might be telling us something of the minister’s personality. What makes the record just a little bit stranger is that this register does not list the mothers of any children, so we have no idea who the one certain parent was and we are told to doubt the one named.
Eleven days later when the child was buried, he was once again identified as the supposed son of his father. These are records that explicitly say that we need to be uncertain.
* Yes, I have favorite census records, it’s an occupational hazard.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 24, 2015
The other day I heard a program that discussed whether or not contrafactual history was “real” history. Some argue that history should only be concerned with what actually happened. Playing with “what if” questions might be fun, but it is fiction, not history. Others contend that analyzing other possibilities, paths that never got a chance to play out, outcomes that were never reached, allows us to see what did happen with greater understanding. What got me thinking was a statement that, when nuclear missile sites were discovered on Cuba, the Kennedy administration was able to think contrafactually about the First World War. What if after that fateful day in Sarajevo, the Great Powers had found ways to pull back instead of choosing to march headlong into Armageddon? What if they could make the choices that were not made in 1914?
This was mentioned as an example of using the contrafactual as a tool, as a way of seeing alternatives. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a genealogical problem, I like to play with contrafactual genealogy. I don’t mean something like—what if grandpa and grandma had never met (clearly they did), but instead she had moved to the forest and built a house of gingerbread with the help of a family of friendly elves and he had sailed away to an enchanted island filled with magical unicorns. That would certainly be contrafactual but it would hardly help. It would take more than the assistance of friendly elves to make that scenario useful.
I am thinking more along the lines of-
- What if great-grandpa disappeared well before I was told that he had? What records would I expect to find if that one “fact” was wrong?
- What if John Doe of Eastville and John Doe of Westville were not the same man, even though I’ve taken that as fact? Where might John Doe of Eastville have gone, if not to Westville?
- What if some of the children believed to belong in a family were actually part of a different family? How would that alter conclusions?
Sometimes such thoughts lead nowhere. Other times they lead to breakthroughs.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 17, 2015
Just yesterday I was driving home from a presentation and I passed where an aunt of mine once lived. Now you can only guess that people once lived there. The house is gone and nothing has replaced it. The land is covered by grass and a scatter of trees but, on closer inspection, the empty space that remains looks like it ought to have a building on it. I noticed that there were two gaps in the curb where there had once been driveways. Now they would be driveways to nowhere. Clearly they had once led to somewhere where people lived.
A few days earlier I drove my daughter around to look at a place for her to work on a photography project. Her teacher had told her about an old abandoned barn that she could use. When we got there, we found the old farmyard was surrounded by new houses still in the process of being built. The abandoned farmhouse was ringed by a fence and signs that read “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” We couldn’t even see the barn, it might have been too far off the road or it might have been already gone. On the way home we made a sort of game of looking for “ruins.” In an area with lots of new construction, they are few and far between, but we did spot ruined stone pillars that once supported a gate, that blocked access to a private drive that no longer exists, which must have led to a home that is probably long gone.
Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by such things. In first grade I went to a school that had steps outside the schoolyard. They went up to nothing but a fence. My father explained to me that long ago the school had been where the playground was and that long ago when they needed to rebuild the school, they built the new one on top of the old playground, then tore down the old one and put the playground there. Those steps once went up much further and ended not at a fence but at the front door.
These are time’s echoes. They are not all of what was, but they bare witness to it. They are time’s tidbits, its trail of breadcrumbs. Things left behind. They are things that I like to see because they make me wonder. They are also the things we like to erase because they no longer fit, or perhaps because they make us wonder in what might be an uncomfortable way for some. Do they remind us of a past that no longer is, and, therefore, remind us that there will come a time when we are part of that past that no longer is?
I’ve been translating some Norwegian farm books over the last few days. They are full of those little things that have been remembered and retold for hundreds of years. One has to wonder what a story of a troll luring a woman to her death at the bottom of a five-hundred-foot-deep lake really represents. Stories like that are, perhaps, hints of what once was, like those gaps in the curb. Anyone who notices those gaps could assume that a house once stood there but only through research, or, in my case, memory, can one know what the house looked like, or who lived there.
So much of what we do in genealogy is like this. We read along looking for those ancient names on the page, those gaps in the curb. Then we stop, question, and seek to fill in the details of the house that once stood where only that gap remains.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 10, 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 kids that can’t yet read. The kind of book whose genealogist version might start—
A is for archive with papers in boxes to the roof.
B is for box that contains the document with the needed proof.
F is for Footnote
“F” could be for “footnote,” those little tidbits of extra information that just might be where the vital information is hiding, or cite a source that is exactly what you need. The footnotes are things we often ignore but that should never go unread.
“F” could be for “find,” which can be a verb or a noun. The verb is what we hope to do. At the end of the day, we hope to be able to look back and know that we have located something important. If it was important enough we might use the noun, and call it a real find.
“F” could be for “fact,” a tricky word to handle. Is it a fact that an ancestor was born on a certain day if the birth registration records the birth on that day? Could the only fact involved actually be that the parents claimed the child was born on that day in order to not be fined for registering the birth too late?
“F” could be for “forget,” a word that is all to important to consider. What has been forgotten? Why has it been forgotten?
“F” could be for “ford,” which reminds us of the importance of travel. In my grandparents day “Ford” might be the Model-T that was the first car the family owned. In earlier years it would have been that important place where the river was shallow enough to be crossed by foot or horse. Generations ago it would have been the all-important gateway to the other bank and the lands beyond. Today, it might be a place of no importance. When researching the past we need to remember what was important in the past.
Those are all fine words, but, the most important word beginning with “F” must be “Family.” They are the people we are researching, the people we research with and who listen to our stories and they are the people who will inherit our research.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | May 3, 2015
Recently, a project of mine ended before it even began. The person who was to be the beneficiary, and from whose memories the project was to begin, only wanted to forget.
It happens, of course, but it’s a sad thought, to be brought up in a way that one only wants to forget. No one should grow up like that. No one should only want to forget.
It’s a sad thought from a genealogical point of view as well. It is the beginning of a dead end. It isn’t just a person forgetting. It’s a family forgetting. The memories of an unhappy childhood will disappear, but so will the connections to generations before. Ancestors who lived long ago will join the unremembered. The present will become disconnected from the past. Perhaps someday those connections can be recreated—that is what genealogists do, but sometimes those connections prove elusive. Even if they can be brought back, something is lost every time we choose to forget. Even those things that, from deep down, and with every right, we wish to be forgotten, will someday leave someone wondering “why?”
Forgetting the dark times means forgetting the overcoming as well.Twitter It!
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