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What Time Was It? Surprise!

By Daniel Hubbard | November 9, 2014

The bombers were enormous. They left their bases in Germany and set their courses for London. As they advanced toward the the British coast by night, operators stood ready at their dishes, waiting to detect their approach and call out the fighters. The early raids proved unstoppable but eventually the British pilots learned to bring the bombers down in balls of flame. The threat faded.

What time was being described in the paragraph above? The Battle of Britain was fought in 1940 but it wasn’t 1940. It wasn’t even World War II.

The period was 1915-1918 and the bombers in question were not even airplanes. They were airships—Zeppelins. As long as two football fields and filled with flammable hydrogen they would seem like sitting ducks. Flying as high as 21,000 feet at speeds almost as great as the airplanes of the day and large enough that bullets made only insignificant holes in them, they made it through anyway.

The dishes that listened at the coast were not radar. That did not appear until World War II. They were “sound mirrors,” parabolic dishes made of concrete. The operators stood in front of them and used a listening horn at the end of a pole to listen for the sound of the approaching engines. Once they found the horn position that made the sound the loudest, the pole pointed to the Zeppelin. It was still too far away to be seen and could not be heard without the mirror but they knew it was coming and could phone the Zeppelin’s bearings to the the nearest airbase.

What is familiar can lead us astray when we don’t realize that history isn’t always what or when we expect. Whenever one researches anything, prepare for surprises!

If you are intrigued by the thought of enormous Zeppelins bombing Britain, you can watch this NOVA documentary.

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A Genealogist’s Halloween II

By Daniel Hubbard | November 2, 2014

This is year two of this story. If you didn’t read last year’s or if by some chance you’ve forgotten it, you should read the original Genealogists Halloween first.

Ring! Ring! (Actually a “Monster Mash” ringtone is heard)

“Hi Jenny, Are you almost ready?”

“Yep, I’ll be over in a minute. I just need to put some finishing touches on my costume.”

“What are you going to be this year?”

“I’m an unindexed, unalphabetized county history that isn’t even in chronological order.”

“Oh, yuck. Those are scary.”

“I just need to work a bit on my ridiculous and long-winded 19th century hyperbole. What do you think of this-

The ancestors of Patrick FitzFlabbergast, though they came to these shores from Ireland, were of Scots and Norman descent and go back into the deepest mists of time. Among his illustrious predecessors he can proudly count both King Duncan of Scotland and William the Conqueror. Those men and many other eminent ancestors must surely look down from on high with pride at their industrious progeny’s untiring commercial efforts in the swine and fertilizer trades.”

“I like it! But you should change Ireland to “that distant Emerald Isle.” Otherwise, it sounds like you’ve swallowed enough dictionaries.”

“I hope so. If I need to eat another page of the OED I won’t be able to move! I have a bit of Webster’s left over, but I think I’ll leave it on my desk. No wonder people in the 19th century were always dying of ‘stomach troubles.’ I’ll be over as soon as I change the Ireland part.”

“We’ll probably already be heading down the street but it should be easy to catch up. I can’t move very fast in my costume.”

“What are you?”

“I’m the 1890 census. I have to stop whenever the fake flames engulf me. At least my mom ordered my brother not to hose me down and water damage me, even if that would be authentic.”

“Ok, I’ll look for you in a few minutes.”

(Call ends.)

(A few minutes later.)

“Hi! Glad I caught up with you. Those flames make you easy to find. How is it going?”

“Alright. Crabby old Mr. Johnson looked at me and said that he had the 1890 census in his garage. Hah, Hah… So we played a trick on him.”


“We filled his garage with the real 1890 census. Just don’t ask too many questions about where we got it. Let’s just say that somebody was owed a favor by the National Archives. I for one don’t want to wake up with a microfiche reader’s screen in my bunk bed…* Hah, Hah, just kidding. We put a dummy on his porch swing.”

“Have you gotten any good stuff?”

“I got a book called “Almond Family Wills” but I can’t keep it. I’m allergic to nuts. You want it?”

“Sure! Hey, where’s Billy? I thought we were going to try to get him into the old courthouse before it burns again.”

“His mom says he has to wait till he’s older. It’s too dangerous.”

“So what is he doing instead?”

“I think he’s going to investigate land records in neighboring counties for references to his death.”

“Oh No! We have to stop him! At midnight all the boundaries change. He could vanish into a gap in the records until next Halloween!”

The children gasp and scatter, heading toward different counties. Some stop along the way to ask at houses if anyone has seen a boy who looks like he could have been born in 1674 but is living according to online trees, but people just go pale and quickly close their doors.

Finally, as they approach a county boundary, they see his ghostly form by the light of the fake census flames. They make a mad dash and tackle him.

“Hey! I’m undead but you don’t need to kill me!”

Just then, as distant bells mark the stroke of midnight, the earth trembled and the the sign in front of them changed from “Welcome to Jefferson, The Happy, Well-documented County” to “Unattached territory! No records were kept and no one returns!” The children screamed and ran back to Billy’s house, pushing their book carts as fast as they could go.

Finally, safe at Billy’s, his mother consoles them with extra helpings of hot cider and quit claims, but poor, undead Billy will have to wait another year for his chance to remove the “Private- Living” label from his costume.



* Godfather reference. Too obscure?


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The Genealogists’ Alphabet

By Daniel Hubbard | October 26, 2014

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 with one letter per page that starts out—

A is for apple, red and tasty.

B is for butterfly, floating, never hasty.

Oddly enough, it got me thinking about what an alphabet book for genealogists might look like. So, for genealogists what might “A” be for?

A is for Authored

“A” could be for “authored,” a type of source created from research into earlier sources. It might be so well done that it is in many ways superior to the sources used to create it or it could be full of errors and lies with nary a source citation to be seen.

“A” could be for “abstract,” a summary of a record showing what the person who made it thought was important in the record. An abstract might be something you make for yourself, so that a difficult to find passage from a nearly illegible source is something that you can easily consult. Abstracts prepared by others can be very helpful but there is always the danger that the record was misread or that one person’s “unimportant” might be your “vital clue.”

“A” might be for “archive,” which genealogists might be excused for believing is a word derived from “ark”—a place of sanctuary, and “hive”—a location filled with busy activity.

“A” could stand for “affidavit,” a written statement affirmed under oath that just might tell us what someone saw or heard or did with details rarely found elsewhere.

“A” might be for “analysis.” Many records don’t directly give us the information that we seek. Instead we must analyze many sources to arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes sources contradict each other and we must analyze them to determine the origin and meaning of the discrepancy. Sometimes the most fascinating details of someone’s life can only be discovered by analyzing sources that don’t actually give us the story.

Those are all fine words, but, clearly, a genealogists’ alphabet has to start with the word “ancestor.” They are, after all, the people that we seek.


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Macabre Beliefs

By Daniel Hubbard | October 19, 2014

I’m always fascinated by the beliefs of our ancestors. Sometimes people say that our ancestors were “just like us” and on other occasions we hear that, if we could travel back in time, they would seem totally different from us. Neither is true and yet both are true. Sometimes they will seem surprisingly modern and other times they will appear totally alien. It can even be a matter of our perspective. Do we look at the very recognizably human traits that led to an action or the result, which appears totally bizarre?

In researching New England families, including my own, I’ve run into accused, and even executed, witches. I’ve never run into accusations of vampirism and would have thought that serious accusations were not something that had really ever happened in the United States. Those were beliefs from Central Europe and the Balkans—from far away places and long, long ago times. I would have been wrong. I’ve learned something new, just in time for Halloween.

American Vampires

The old name for tuberculosis is “consumption.” The name is telling. Consumption seemed to consume its victims. They faded away—the life being slowly drained out of them. Because Tuberculosis causes its victims to cough up blood, it may have been the inspiration for the “red death” of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction. Blood, death, consumption and draining—it might have been inevitable that, at least in some isolated places, as tuberculosis spread from family member to family member and claimed more and more lives, blame for the affliction might fall on visits to a home by a vampire.

That New Englanders might hunt witches on occasion in the decades before the Enlightenment is common knowledge and as horrific as some of their handling of the accused was, we have come to at least accept that it happened. It is new to me that in isolated places, long after the Enlightenment, even after the cause of tuberculosis was discovered, Americans sometimes went hunting. Those who did the hunting may not have used the word, but outsiders who described the goings on, did not hesitate to use the term “vampire” for what was being hunted.

Sometimes bodies were clandestinely disinterred. As one reburial in Connecticut shows, their heads might be removed and their femurs used to create a skull and cross bones. The symbol of death was created from someone who was suspected of being alive even in the grave. The ribs of the man found that way, showed that he likely died of tuberculosis. In other instances, the ritual was quite public. After the exhumation, the heart of the accused might be brought to the village green or the blacksmith’s forge and publicly burned. In one case, locals, accompanied by a doctor and a newspaper reporter, opened the graves of three tuberculosis victims, found one body that was not sufficiently decomposed in their opinion (the death had occurred only two months before and it was January, but that explanation was not good enough.) They removed the girl’s heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water and gave the brew to her brother to drink, thinking that it would cure him of consumption. He died shortly thereafter. That happened…in America…in 1892.

When we research our ancestors, we need to remember that they were neither just like us nor an alien species. We can’t go into our research with the idea that our notions can guide us through their world. They clearly cannot. We can’t simply throw out everything we know about our world either. Part of the art of genealogy is to carefully apply what we know without taking it for granted and letting them guide us through their world, be it alien or familiar.

Though Consumption’s vampire grasp, Had seized thy mortal frame, Thy ardent and inspiring mind, Untouched, remained the same.

-from the grave marker of Simon Whipple Aldrich, 1814-1841, North Smithfield. Rhode Island



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By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2014

This is a day when we think about the discovery of the New World. It is a good time to think about the meanings of discovery.

There are probably places where the question “Who discovered America?” could provoke a fight or at least start a heated argument, because there are several possible answers.


The ancestors of modern Native Americans certainly arrived in the New World long before anyone else. Yet they also would have had no idea that they had “discovered” a new place. No peoples of 20,000 years ago would have had a concept of the world advanced enough for the concept of discovery to make any sense. My ancestors certainly did not suddenly realized that they had “discovered” Europe either. They followed herds and looked for edible plants and water and shelter, and ended up in a place that they had not been before—something that probably happened with some regularity.

On the other hand, if a native of 500 years ago had overheard European explorers discussing how they had “discovered” this great new place, that hypothetical native observer could be excused for thinking “Ahem…we noticed this place just a bit before you. Actually, wait a moment, beards, funny hats…haven’t I just discovered Europeans?”


About 1100 years ago, Vikings reached what is now Canada. They were looking for new places and they certainly found a place that was new to them. Yet, they could have had no idea that they had accomplished a sea voyage to the edge of another continent. Their settlements didn’t last. Instead of leading to a spreading knowledge in the Old World that there was land far to the west, that information faded into legend. What they did was a dead end. Permanent contact across the Atlantic would have to wait.


Here is where the credit traditionally goes. He reached the New World roughly 500 years after the Norse but his knowledge spread throughout the world. It wasn’t a dead end, but, though the evidence is mixed, Columbus seems to have gone to his grave believing that he had not discovered a new world, but that he had reached Asia.

Amerigo Vespucci

Though Columbus’s misidentification of the natives of the places he reached as Asians led to the term “Indians” being used for them, Vespucci’s Latinized given name, Americus, led to the a new name for the New World. There will probably always be room for doubt, but he may have been the first explorer to realize that it was not Asia that had been reached but rather someplace else entirely, a New World.


So who discovered the New World? The people who reached it first but who would have had no way of knowing what they had accomplished? The people who knew that had reached someplace different but whose knowledge faded into legend? The man who spread the knowledge of land far to the west of Europe but who may never have thought of it as a truly new place? The man who was far from first in reaching it, but who seems to have realized that it was a New World? Did they all discover the New World? Did none of them “discover” it?

Genealogical Discovery

We make discoveries in genealogy all the time, and those 4 types that appear in the story of the discovery of the New World appear in family history as well.

  1. Sometimes we are nomadic hunters of clues. We follow herds of hints across the landscape but don’t actually know that we are first to reach a whole, new area. The knowledge to help us realize that is just not something that we have.
  2. Sometimes we’re genealogical Icelanders. We set off to explore. We find the tip of the iceberg and realize this is something new but further progress eludes us and we aren’t able to spread our information.
  3. Sometimes we make a discovery. We know it is big. We shout it from the mountaintops but in the end, we don’t really know what it is.
  4. Sometimes we find a little something. We think about it and combine it with other discoveries, often made by others, and suddenly we know that things are very different from what we thought. It may not be a whole new world, but a piece of the past has been discovered and put on the map.

In our genealogical voyages of discovery, the goal is the final step to that fourth type of discovery—to have the evidence, know what it means, and pass the knowledge on.

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Are Answers “Out There”?

By Daniel Hubbard | October 5, 2014

Whenever we have a problem, a logical thing to wonder is if the solution is “out there”? Depending on the problem, that question can be deeply philosophical and here we can really only skim the surface. Back in my days as a grad student in physics that was something that would come up in late-night conversations—are the laws of nature out there waiting to be discovered or are they created by us? It comes up in thinking about mathematics as well. Is mathematics something that is already there or is it something we create? In mathematics, it is an open question, in physics it really isn’t.

What Is “Out There”?

We arrive at new laws of nature through experiment and observation of new phenomena. Mathematical models are tried until a model is found that does two things. It avoids contradicting other experiments and observations. A model of why balloons float that is based on the shape of the balloon might predict that eggs float. This would contradict many observations of kitchen floors after seven-year-olds have attempted to make breakfast. So that model would be no good even if it correctly described balloons. The other thing the model needs to do is to match experiment and observation of the new phenomenon every time. No exceptions. If experiments and observations are done correctly and all the extraneous factors are calculated, what is left should be correctly calculated by the new model. After a while that model is considered to be a new “law of nature,” which scientists would refer to as a theory.

I’ve never seen it explicitly stated, but it seems to me that the reason the word theory means something a bit fluffy and undecided in common language but is used in science to mean something that can be mind-bogglingly accurate is that even something mind-bogglingly accurate can be shown to be not quite right by an even more mind-bogglingly accurate experiment. The word theory is not used because there is anything fluffy but as an acknowledgment that there is always the possibility that something more accurate, or with broader applicability, will come along. It would be dangerous then to think of theories of physics being “out there” waiting to be discovered because what we discover are only progressively better approximations.

Trying to Trek to “Out There”

So, are the solutions to our family history problems “out there”? In some cases, the answer is clearly “no.” Records will simply not exist in many cases. In other cases, we might be able to solve the problem in some sense, but only by accepting less accuracy than we originally imagined. Our problem might be that we don’t know an ancestor’s date of birth. Our solution might end up being a month and a year, not the date we hoped for. Records to prove the exact date might simply not exist but, by slightly redefining our problem, we arrive at a solution that we can accept. Was that solution “out there”? Not really. Just as in science, saying that a solution is “out there” means that we can be sure; we can know all there is to know. That isn’t the case. Ideas can be falsified. In science that usually involves improving the underlying concepts or arriving at a more accurate model. In genealogy falsification is often much more extreme. We might find a new document that explicitly states that a person’s parentage was different from what we had arrived at and states it in such a way that we can see how other evidence led us astray. In other cases a new solution might not be apparent but it becomes clear that the old solution must be wrong. Discovering that a girl’s parents died the year before she was born makes it pretty clear that those people were not actually her parents, even if it tells us nothing about who her parents were.

What about when we really do “get it right”? Then it depends on what we mean by “getting it right.” What accuracy do we accept? “Born about 1712″ might truly reflect reality but it isn’t the same as knowing that a person was born 23 Aug 1711. There is also more to accuracy than that. Our lives are not simply that dates that bracket them. The question in family history is really “what was that person’s life actually like?” That kind of question invites the same ever increasingly accurate answers that occur in science. The biographies we arrive at, which are the answers to that question, are not “out there” just as the natural laws we discover are not “out there.” What we have is always an approximation that we hope is ever more accurate. We might come to a practical end to what we can learn about a person but those practical ends are not answers that exist “out there.” What we know at any given moment is simply an invitation to learn more.

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Failing Fast

By Daniel Hubbard | September 28, 2014

Trying to fail may sound like a truly odd concept. Trying to do it fast probably sounds even more bizarre, but there is a point to it.

When a problem itself is even remotely interesting, the solution is often not something that is easy to find. Many documents might be needed and little shards of evidence might need to be extracted from them and combined with clever logic in order to prove a hypothesis. It is often much easier and faster to disprove a a complicated hypothesis. Don’t even try to prove it at first. Try to disprove it immediately. Try to make it fail fast.

Say, for example, that you think your ancestor John Doe of South Succotash is the same man as an earlier John Doe who lived in West Windfall. There might be many subtle clues that point you in that direction. There might be some inconsistencies that seem so easy to explain that you start to think that the two men really might be the same. What if you find that their wives have different names? In South Succotash, John’s wife was Sally and in West Windfall you find she was Willa, but then find that the South Succotash John Doe had an earlier wife, that would seem to match the change in name for his wife, rather than being evidence of the two men being different, it is another hint that they might be the same.

In the example of the two John Does, we can be blinded by the generally wise research method of going from the known to the unknown. That means we generally research backwards in time. The South Succotash John Doe lived there back to a certain time and we hypothesize that before that he lived in West Windfall. Rather than trying to prove that they are the same man, which can require some intricate work, what if we research the John Doe of West Windfall and do it forward in time? We might quickly find that he disappears from the records there because he died there, not because he moved away. We might find Willa listed as “the widow of John Doe” long after she ought to have died, if the two men were the same. We might find him alive and well and living somewhere other than South Succotash. We might even find him in deeds selling land in West Windfall and even listed as “of South Succotash” but when his wife signed the deeds, she was Willa every time, not Sally. Instead of being the same man, we might have found that there was another John Doe of South Succotash and that he, not your John Doe, was the man from West Windfall.

There is a point to trying to disprove your hypotheses no matter what. If you look for evidence that might disprove a hypothesis and find that you can’t disprove it, you have taken an important step in proving it because you’ve eliminated some other possibilities. There is another point. Some of the research that might disprove your hypothesis will probably be fairly easy to do. Don’t save that for last. If the hypothesis is destined to fail, it is best if it fails fast.

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The Future of our Present Past

By Daniel Hubbard | September 21, 2014

It can be wise for the family historian to think a little about the future of the past they are reconstructing in the present. You can read the letters that were once in a box in grandma’s attic. You can look at the photographs found in your uncle’s desk drawer. Those things could be a century old, or even older and we would know what they were and be able to understand them.

A century or more from now and a curious descendant might be shown a box of things once found in your office drawer. What will they see? Diskettes, homemade CDs, a couple of flash memory cards, a USB hard drive and a sticky note that reads “genealogy and family photos.” How much would be understood? Probably just the sticky note.

The Medium Holds the Message

In earlier times, one of the few important thing about how information was stored was how long the physical medium would last. Clay tablets, carved stone, papyrus scrolls and books printed on rag paper can all last for many centuries. Where do we have our data? CDs and DVDs that we burn ourselves might last a decade if we take good care of them. Magnetic disks can fail mechanically or simply slowly demagnetize and become unreadable. Flash memory can also slowly lose the electrical charges that hold its information. Though firm numbers are hard to come-by, our normal day-to-day ways of storing digital data all seem to become questionable for storage times of more than a decade.

Hello, Is there Data in There?

Not so many years ago, at least on a genealogical timescale, I had a zip drive and zip disks. Remember those? Remember when 100 MB on a removable disk was huge? How may people in a century will know what they are? How many today know? Aging is no longer just for individual examples of a physical medium, it is something that happens to whole types of physical media. Types of physical media don’t stay in use as long as they once did.

The aging of types of media is different from what it once was. Even today, it does not take much to realize that a clay tablet with funny marks on it was used to store data. You can see the data. Though disks have been used to store data for more than a century, if one counts sound recordings, it isn’t obvious that a disk holds data.

In many ways putting machines between ourselves and our data is a good thing. I’d have to stop and think about how many terabytes of data capacity I have in my office. It is certainly much more than the data capacity of my bookshelves. In other ways, it is problematic. Writing has to accommodate normal human vision. It is stable. The format might make significant changes over centuries or millennia but one can still see it. Once we need a machine to read the data we have two problems. We might not realize that the object holds data and we might not have access to any machine that can read it. I still have machines that can play analog sound recordings on disks. If I found a collection of cylinder recordings, I would have to look for a machine. We know what a USB connector is but will our descendants? When it gets to the point that USB connectors disappear from computers, what will our descendants do with a disk drive with a USB connector that might have lost its data decades earlier? Will they struggle to find a machine that can attempt to read it?


This is that factor in the future survival of our data that got me thinking. Formats once lasted a good long time. It took many, many centuries before the go-to format for information in the Western world stopped being Latin. Even today, the high school down the road teaches Latin. I won’t ask for a quick show of hands for how many people think that one hundred years from now our schools will be teaching four years of classes in docx? Introduction to Postscript anyone?

Even if our physical media survive and are of a type that can still be read, what if the data itself is formatted in a way that makes it unintelligible? Already many people have had the experience of suddenly no longer being able to read an old file. It may have moved to the new computer but there is no longer a program that can read it. If the problem is caught early, there is often a list of hoops to jump through that though painful, is at least possible. A century from now those hoops may not be realistic or even known. I don’t expect the database files I have today to even make sense ten years down the road. Instead, when new software is released, I will need to update all those files to keep them useable.

What to Do?

These days data requires a custodian. Many of us have taken on or been given the role of “family archivist.” We are the ones with the old photographs, documents and personal items. More and more, a family needs a data custodian as well. If left to itself, data will become unusable. It might just be practically unusable or it might actually disappear beyond recovery.

First, physical media need both preservation and maintenance. Having multiple copies of files and keeping the storage medium up to date by copying the data to new types of media is important. If the data has no custodian for a while, it is best if it was on up-to-date media when it was “abandoned.” If it had been neglected for years before that, there is much less hope.

Finally, I’m getting to the inspiration for this post—thinking about the data’s format. I just read an article in the October 2014 edition of Mac Life which discusses formats that are likely to be better for long term storage than others. It is an article that was well worth the few minutes it takes to read. The basic recommendation is to store files in formats that are open. That is, the structure of the format is published and freely available or to formats that are so ubiquitous and stable that it would be hard to image something else outliving them. Open on the one hand and ubiquitous and stable on the other aren’t always the same thing. JPEG is likely to be around for a long, long time but it isn’t an open standard. The same is true of PDF.

Some formats are highly specific. There is no better way to store a digital image than RAW if all you care about is having the maximum amount of the image data preserved for working with the images in the near future but I can’t think of a worse way to store images if what you care about is being able to see those images in coming decades. RAW is what it sounds like, the raw data produced by a digital camera. Every make of camera is different so RAW isn’t so much a format as a class of formats—none of them particularly wide spread and all of them proprietary.

Word processing formats come and go, and are generally proprietary. Any modern word processing program should be able to save to plain text or RTF (Rich Text Format), both of which are open and not going to suddenly change or disappear.

Genealogy database programs can generally output to gedcom, which is not fun to read but a human can make sense out of it as plain text. Reports can be generated and saved as RTF. You might also be able to export your database to something like a series of interlinked html files that preserve the structure of the database. HTML is likely to last far longer than any genealogy database format.

So take care of how you physically preserve your data and think about the format that you are preserving. Last but no least, there might be things that you consider printing on acid-free paper or photo stock. Those things will obviously be data as long as they last.


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The Contemplation of Things

By Daniel Hubbard | September 14, 2014

I was reminded of a wonderful quote this week. I was watching a PBS documentary about the photographer Dorthea Lange who had a copy of it hanging in her studio-

The contemplation of things as they are
without error or confusion
without substitution or imposture
is in itself a nobler thing
than a whole harvest of invention.

-Francis Bacon

Because the popularity of the quote seems to rely on the fact that Lange had it in her studio, it is most often to be found in connection with photography today. What if we change the word “are” at the end of that first line to “were”? Then I think we might just have a quote that a genealogist could hang on the wall. I often find webs and tangles of information that are worth contemplating. Isn’t that our goal in some sense—to think and contemplate our way through strange and seemingly impossible bits of evidence to find the solution and know what happened? We don’t work toward what we wish had happened. We shouldn’t assume what usually happened. We shouldn’t produce a “whole harvest of invention.”

The more one researches, I think the more one is forced to conclude that it is not uncommon for our pasts to differ from what we thought and what we were told or simply to contain details beyond what we could have imagined. I find those discoveries to be wonderful, like wiping the frost from a window and getting to really see what is outside. It might not be what one expected but it will be something far more interesting than the frost.

One final Francis Bacon quote-

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.

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Thinking about Thinking

By Daniel Hubbard | September 8, 2014

The Thinker by Rodin

The Thinker by Rodin

I just watched an interesting video. It was not at all about family history and yet it was one of those times when the parallels jumped out at me. The speaker was a philosopher that discussed a story known as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the idea of metacognition, that is, thinking about thinking. Whether one agrees with him or not, the points were worth thinking about.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is, perhaps the world’s oldest surviving work of literature. It dates from roughly 4,500 years ago. Its survival, in an of itself, is pretty awe inspiring and that is something I want to get back to. He also mentioned how literature that has stood the test of time tends to be full of thinking about thinking. That might sound overly cerebral, but even fiction with a great deal of violence contains a great deal of thinking about strategy—what is my opponent thinking? If I do this, how will my opponent respond?

Stories that captivate people let us see what is going on in the characters’ minds even when that is not the point of the story. We need to understand how they think and what they think about what other characters are thinking. That is the way people work and if characters never show any signs of thinking about thinking they seem flat and uninteresting. The philosopher in the video found few if any signs of thinking about thinking in the Epic of Gilgamesh, making it an odd literary classic.

Genealogy and Thinking about Thinking

So what does this have to do with genealogy and family history? I suspect one of the reasons that The Epic of Gilgamesh is relatively popular is that it is extremely old for what it is. Being the oldest work of literature that we have gives it some automatic power of attraction. We are interested in extremes. Though things happen in it that are recognizable today, it also has the powerful feel of the alien to it. The odd and unusual will at least briefly hold our attention. Sometimes in genealogy when we go back to distant times, what we find becomes generally interesting simply because it is from so long ago. When we stretch time to its breaking point, whether it is with an ancient epic or research that stretches back for centuries, people find it interesting. When we encounter that mix of familiar and alien that we often find when looking at people from long ago, we find that fascinating. Some things are so recognizable and yet others are so strange. That dissonance that we encounter in the distant past interests us.

Getting back to the philosopher’s point, Gilgamesh has action. Things happen. Yet, the characters don’t do much of any thinking about thinking. The characters are flat. Often that is what we get if we stop our research once we have the names and dates. We may not produce great works of literature about our ancestors, but when enough information survives, we can at least start to bring them to life. We may never be able to know what sort of thinking about thinking some did. Other ancestors left behind enough to start to get into their heads. When we have enough to start our own thinking about their thinking, they start to become people once again. I think when we can, it is our duty to do that.

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