Apr 22, 2011

Fancy Chart How-To: Ethnicity in America

After the series on money and careers this week, I needed some mindless blogging I could churn out without too much thought. This post is mostly just an excuse to try out some interactive charts. I first saw these on the Artemis Project blog. It's another hobbyist project doing cutting edge analysis of genetic tests, like the Eurogenes, Dodecad, and Harappa Ancestry projects. The graphics on both the Artemis and Harappa projects really stood out. At first, I was impressed, and wondered how they created them. I discovered it's actually very easy using spreadsheets on Google Docs. I'll use an example chart I made from census data, then explain how to create your own.

The subject of this post is a simple breakdown of the top 20 ethnicities of Americans in the 2000 US Census. Such macro-level demographic data might not sound very useful, but combined with county-level maps (see below), it can help find likely places an ancestor might have settled, or passed through, after immigrating to America. During the late 19th and early 20th century, new immigrants tended to stick together with people from their own ethnicity for a generation or so. Many of them didn't initially speak English, so they wanted to live near others they could communicate with.

Data from the 2000 US Census, and previous ones, are available to download from the Census Bureau. If you explore their website, you can find all kinds of data, for the country as a whole and separate geographical divisions. Also keep in mind that "ancestry," as the census records it, is self-reported. So take it for what it's worth. Here's a chart I created from the data. If you move your mouse over the bars, tooltips will popup and display the actual percentages:To make your very own charts like the example above (or far more complex ones), either import an existing spreadsheet into Google Docs, or create a new one. Editing spreadsheets there works much like Microsoft Excel, so I'm not going to explain that. Once you've entered some data, created a chart from it, and edited its appearance to your liking, you're ready to embed it in a web page.

Here's how it works: Use the "Publish chart..." command under the pull-down menu on the chart itself (see left). It pops up a message with the HTML code to embed in any web page (see right). Just copy the text and paste it into the source code of the web page where you want to display the chart. For example, if you're embedding it in a post here on Blogger, click the "Edit HTML" tab at the top of the editor. Don't be alarmed it doesn't show up in the "Compose" mode. The editor doesn't execute the script needed to display the chart. When you preview or publish the post, the chart will display correctly. I must add one minor caveat, that might require some hand-editing of the code. On my blog, the main content column is too narrow to fit the default chart size. However, if you look at the source code for the chart, there are some easily understandable parameters for height and width. In my case, the original code from Google Docs specified "width":600. Just experiment with different numbers to find a value that fits.

There are a wide variety of maps created from census data on Wikipedia. For example, here's a breakdown of all 3143 counties/parishes in the US, color-coded by the predominant ethnicity reported:

This is an extremely simple example of the kind of great looking, interactive charts made possible by Google Docs. As a follow-up to this post, I'll create another chart with the ethnicity of Minnesotans. Eventually, I want to make some fancy genetic admixture charts like the aforementioned genome bloggers, but I'm still just experimenting with the software for now.

Money Changes Everything – Or Does It?

[The final chapter in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?]

I like the title Thomas gave today's topic, because money can change people, just probably not the amount you're likely to make as a professional genealogist. Think big money, like Powerball. Many lottery winners end up in worse shape than before they won, just a few years later. If you have the disposable income to spare, fine, but the people who spend the most money on lotteries probably shouldn't. I'm not necessarily anti-gambling, but let's be frank about what the lottery really is: a regressive tax. Or as I like to call it, a tax for people who are bad at math. If your plan for success includes winning the lottery, I'm not going to take you seriously.

Likewise, we should be serious about whether blogging is a viable source of income for genealogists, or anyone else. Apparently, there are bloggers somewhere making a living at it, but I haven't seen one in the wild yet. None of the several posts I read on the subject this week expect to make much, beyond keeping the lights on for the blog itself, and most had doubts about even that. I started my contribution to this series Monday, describing other benefits I derive from blogging. For me, it's mostly just writing practice, a creative outlet, and hopefully a place for my unknown relatives to find me.

Tuesday was about making genealogy a career, which I've seriously considered, but haven't yet made the leap. I like the idea of working for myself, but hate the idea of all the mundane business and administrative details that would entail. I wish there were job openings for pure researchers, or apprentice genealogists. I'm sure there are many like me, who feel we have almost all the skills we need to take clients. Gaining experience for a year or two, as an understudy to an established professional, could be just the jumpstart we need.

Wednesday's topic was popular. It generated more traffic and comments than pretty much all my previous posts combined! Most of the commenters were supportive, but one must not have read the entire post. Or maybe I hadn't explained myself well enough. I was trying to get across the often misunderstood point, that no cost to you doesn't mean no cost at all. There really, truly, honestly is no such thing as a free lunch. Blogs, forums, and other websites have monetary costs associated with running the servers and providing enough bandwidth for people to access them. The money might be part of the membership dues to your local genealogical society, corporate sponsorship as a form of marketing, or a passionate individual who funds their own website. It's possible to use many of the resources at no cost, and I don't fault anyone who does so. We just need to realize those resources might not be there someday if their patrons don't feel it's in their interest to continue supporting them.

Besides the direct costs, there are innumerable indirect costs, whose total value can't be measured. But I'd bet the latter would eclipse the former by several orders of magnitude. Think of all the indexing projects, transcriptions of records and gravestones, and all the other genealogical information available online. Then extend that work into the physical world, where the same types of activities were going on long before the internet existed. The public library here has an old style card catalog, with an index of manually typed cards; more than fifty years of names from the local newspaper, for every birth, engagement, and wedding announcement, obituary, and even plain news stories. The library had nothing to do with its creation; a group of genealogists did the work, and donated it. The opportunity cost alone for that project is staggering. And that's a relatively easy undertaking, intellectually. Anyone who can read and write could contribute.

Now think of all the forums, mailing lists, society newsletters, and now blogs, where people answer questions, offer tips, and in myriad other ways prevent us from making dumb mistakes in our research. The pool of experience and expertise in this community is immense. The time it takes to read queries and respond is minor, compared to the wealth of knowledge that takes years of study and practice to acquire. I could continue to bloviate on this point, but I think you get it by now. Many genealogists volunteer countless hours helping others, and they should be applauded for their efforts. Volunteers aren't given nearly enough recognition for all the time and effort they contribute to the community. I'd personally like to know who spent all the time indexing the local newspapers, so I could thank them. It's saved me weeks or even months of research.

We should also think of the inverse situation. Some genealogists choose to become professionals, and charge clients money, for doing what many of us do ourselves, as a labor of love. Nobody should give them any grief for choosing that path, and fortunately I don't think that's happening. A few comments I read on other blogs said as much; something along the lines of "is this really a problem that needs to be discussed?" Yes, and I think the discussion was overdue. Let's continue this thought experiment, and increase the scale. What if somebody started a genealogy company that became really successful? I mean on the order of thousands of customers, and millions in revenue? Doesn't sound plausible? How about Ancestry.com? They've become the whipping boy for the whole community. All these great free online resources are filled with hundreds of comments haranguing Ancestry.com. Some people have legitimate complaints, but many seem to have trouble expressing them in a constructive manner.

Subscriptions to Ancestry.com aren't cheap, but the value you get for the money is easily worth it. Both the content, and how they deliver it, are the best in the industry. (I'm referring only to the online trees, I don't use any desktop genealogy software.) The tight integration between their databases and tree interface make it easy to attach sources with information to the facts and events of people in a family tree. How you determine what's evidence and analyze it to conclude anything is still left to the genealogist, as always. Don't get me wrong, I still have lots of issues with them. There's lots of room for improvement, and they do some things plainly wrong in my opinion. But as far as I'm concerned, they're the best game in town. The online arm of FamilySearch may catch up to them eventually, but for now Ancestry.com has them beat. The research I've conducted on my family tree there in the last couple years alone would've taken literally decades otherwise.

If you don't want to use Ancestry.com, you don't have to. There are enough free online genealogical resources to keep you busy researching for years. But please stop beating the dead horse already. Don't malign either individual professional genealogists, or corporations, just because they're making a profit. Can we dispense with the false notion that volunteering, or working for a non-profit or the government, somehow places a person on some moral high ground? Nothing the government or any non-profit organization does would be possible if they didn't get money from people and corporations who are making a profit. The word profit has been endlessly disparaged in modern society. Profit isn't evil. Nobody should feel guilty for making a profit, if they're doing it honestly. When you and I work to our own benefit, we all gain in the end. Some old, dead, white guy, named Adam Smith, explained it eloquently, way back in 1776:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
I also think a distinction needs to be made between self-interest and selfishness, Ayn Rand notwithstanding. The profit motive can be a powerful force, for good or ill. But far too many people equate profit with greed, and they're fundamentally different. Greed, like selfishness, is excess, a desire for money gone too far. The old cliche, "everything in moderation," is a good guideline. And it is possible to have too much of a good thing (my waistline can attest to that).

OK, I'll get down off my soapbox. I didn't mean for this post to be so long, it just turned out that way. I didn't even get to everything I was planning to say, but I'll leave something for future posts.

Apr 20, 2011

What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?

[Part three in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was Careers in Genealogy.]

I'm going to try very hard to keep this post from lapsing into a political rant. This subject is one of my pet peeves, and I could go on for hours, but this isn't a political blog. There are plenty of those already.

I'll start with a simple observation many people don't seem to understand. Nothing tangible is free! If you can taste it, touch it, smell it, or hold it in your hand, somebody had to pay for it. We've all heard the old saw, "there's no such thing as a free lunch," but most of us behave otherwise. I'm as guilty as anyone in this regard. It's only natural for people to take advantage of opportunities where you feel like you're getting something for nothing. Don't believe me? Witness two wedding receptions: one with an open bar, and the other with a cash bar. Need I say more? The difference between them is like night and day.

If people don't have to spend money out of their own pocket, they'll get the biggest, best, and most of everything. That's one of the reasons why our health care system in America is so expensive. When the actual cost of medical care is shielded behind layers of insurance companies and government bureaucracy, people treat health care like an open bar, profligate spending reigns, and we're all the losers for it. We've become something of an entitlement society. People feel they're owed something, for no particular reason. The vast majority of the American populace is largely ignorant about economics, and politicians from every party pander to economic populism. But I think the root cause of the predicament of this topic is a perfect storm of dying business models and spoiled kids (metaphorically speaking, I include lots of adults in that category).

Most traditional media companies, whether publishers, movie studios, record labels, newspapers, TV broadcasters, or even software developers, are trying desperately to cling to their old ways of doing business. Technology is eroding the very foundation their businesses were built upon, and they're stubborn. There are a few bright lights experimenting with new business models who seem to understand the sea-change taking place, but they're exceptional cases. I imagine it must have been similar after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Suddenly, the livelihoods of hundreds of scribes were threatened by the ease with which a printing press could crank out dozens of identical books, at a fraction of the cost.

Add to this mix the unrealistic expectations of young people. That's one of the telltale signs of youth and immaturity. Eventually people grow up, and realize they have to work for a living. But more and more, this attitude remains even in adulthood. It's neatly captured in the chorus from an old Queen song, "I want it all, and I want it now." It also informs their consumption of products from the dinosaur media. Peer-to-peer networking made it easy to share music, software, and movies. Why pay for content when you can get it online for free? Then they rationalize their theft with an internet-era cliche, "information wants to be free." Unfortunately, the media companies overreact, using lawsuits as weapons to delay the inevitable. (But please don't follow their rhetoric and call it piracy. It's common thievery, nothing more. Piracy is what's happening off the coast of Somalia. Those are real pirates, using real guns, taking over ships and a few idiots in private yachts with lots of money but little sense, who think sailing there sounded like a good idea. Now I'm way off-topic...) Another related factor is the current mess of copyright law, but that's the subject for another post. We're in a transitional period right now, where norms and rules haven't yet caught up with the technological means at our disposal. Who knows how it will all sort out, but there are opportunities for the taking if you pay close attention.

This new reality has many consequences specifically for the genealogy community. In today's GeneaBloggers post on the topic, Thomas wrote about the "Freemium Concept," more traditionally known as a loss leader. Companies have been doing this for eons, and they'll continue as long as they can benefit. The standard example of a loss leader is Gillette. They charge very little for the handle of the razor, but the blades cost an arm and a leg. Many desktop genealogical software programs are using this model. You can download a lite version for free, which gets you hooked on using the software. They make their money by enticing people to pay for the full version with more features, or access to genealogical databases.

Some people don't realize all corporate charitable giving is a marketing campaign. Companies are going green for the same reason. If you have the impression a company's "doing the right thing," you're more likely to pay higher prices for identical products you could buy cheaper generic. There are many generous philanthropists, but you have to make money first if you want to give it away. The founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, delivered one of the keynotes at RootsTech (you can watch it online, for free, or at least no cost to you). It was a good speech, and he and his organization are truly doing some great work. One of the programs he mentioned gives free books to disadvantaged children, in this country and all over the world. But it's only possible because they're using old books in the public domain (actual cost around $1 per physical book), and the fact Kahle is a dot.com millionaire. He founded one business that AOL bought, and co-founded Alexa, which was bought by Amazon.com.

Genealogists love to complain about Ancestry.com. I'm a regular customer, and overall I'm satisfied. Their subscriptions aren't cheap, and as the largest genealogy company, they've grown to the size which makes it difficult to be responsive to customer feedback. But I'm able to do research in their databases, and easily find many records, which might have taken weeks in the olden days. Even if you're not their customer, it's in your interest they stay in business. There are many free genealogy resources online. Among the foremost is RootsWeb, which is still run by volunteers, but only possible because it's sponsored by Ancestry.com. Just today, DNA Heritage, a British genealogical DNA testing company, announced they're essentially going out of business. Besides the paid services they offered, they also operated a free database for Y-DNA test results, called Ybase. Fortunately, in this case, there's a successful company in the same market who were able to buy them out. But that's not always the case. Sometimes those resources are lost for good.

In any case, those free resources are dependent on volunteers. They may not charge anything for using the fruits of their labor, but the time they spent working on it was valuable nonetheless. I read various genealogy forums, sometimes asking questions, more often answering them nowadays. My level of participation doesn't take a big time commitment, since I don't need to research many of the questions asked by newbies. I've benefited tremendously from the advice of more experienced genealogists in the past, so I'm happy to do the same for others.

Thomas also wrote quite a bit about webinars. I've participated in both free and pay genealogy webinars. Think about how much it would cost if you had to travel somewhere, pay for attending the seminar, plus lodging, food, expenses, etc. Now those webinars look like a pretty good deal. This is an area I think genealogists are on the cutting edge. It's only very recently the technology and infrastructure was in place to make them possible. DearMyrtle wrote a post earlier today about the technology she uses to conduct webinars, and how it can be used to reach an even wider audience. The GeneaWebinars blog consolidates many of the schedules of upcoming webinars, so there's one central place to find more avenues for education and skill-building.

In summary, people need to realize that nothing is truly free. It's only the profit generated by successful companies, and the countless hours put in by numerous volunteers that makes the many free genealogy resources possible. By all means, use the opportunities presented to you wisely, and if you benefit from it, pass it on.

Careers in Genealogy

[Part two in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was Genealogy Blogging – For Fun or Profit?.]

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm only working part-time right now. I'm searching for a full-time job, but when it comes to any activity I'll do for 40+ hours per week, I can be rather picky. That's why I've contemplated turning this hobby into a career–it's something I truly enjoy, and I'm pretty good at it (the two are often mutually self-reinforcing). Unfortunately, there are few entry-level opportunities in this industry, outside of a few locations near major archives or genealogical libraries. I wouldn't mind moving someday if the right opportunity arose, but I currently have commitments that preclude relocating. The other possibility is going into business for myself, but I don't have a clue how I would start out on my own, and I'm not sure that I'd even want to, just yet.

Don't get me wrong, the idea of being my own boss, setting my own hours, and getting paid to do research sounds great. But I don't even want to think about the other aspects of running a business: marketing, contracts, invoices, accounting, etc. I like reading about business, out of intellectual curiosity, but actually dealing with the 1001 little details leaves me cold. It's not that I completely lack any business-savvy. I have a few modest entrepreneurial ideas I think would work well. I perceive some niche markets that aren't being adequately served, and have some ideas how to meet those needs. But I'm hesitant to talk about them, lest someone takes an idea and beats me to the punch.

I might be way off-base, but my impression of the average professional genealogist is a self-employed, small business owner. I know of a couple larger genealogy companies, but they seem to be few and far between. Why don't more genealogists team up and create partnerships or small firms? I think the market could sustain several such businesses in a single metropolitan area, especially as the baby boomers retire and become more interested in their family history.

I have good research skills I could put to use immediately. That's a necessary, but certainly not sufficient component to sustain a career in genealogy. The ideal situation would be to work with an established genealogist, who could be a mentor on the other skills I need to improve (and have the desire to do so). On the other hand, there are some skills I'd rather always just leave to someone else. Specialization is key to maximizing productivity. If different people concentrate on what they do best, the total output will be greater and more efficient.

Someday I hope to put my own family history to paper and self-publish it. The aspect of writing I need the most work on is crafting a narrative that doesn't make the reader want to gouge their own eyes out. My fear is if I try to start writing somebody's family history, it will quickly devolve to a "biblical" sounding genealogy: this-guy begat that-guy, what's his face begat so-and-so... I can crank out academic prose if need be, at least in the sense of making an argument and supporting it with evidence. But I still hate writing in the first-person, and it takes me close to forever to finish a single blog post. (This was supposed to be Tuesday's topic... Oh well, I guess it's still Tuesday in Alaska. :)

Unless there's a professional genealogist in the vicinity of Minnesota who needs a research assistant (hint, hint), I'm not likely to turn this into a career anytime soon. It'll have to remain a hobby for the time being, although definitely a serious hobby.

Apr 18, 2011

Flora and Fauna, Part 2

More of Minnesota's natural beauty.

Autumn leaves and Mille Lacs Lake, from a fire tower in Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park.

More after the jump...

Genealogy Blogging – For Fun or Profit?

There's an interesting conversation happening in the genealogy blogosphere, about making money via blogs, and in the genealogy community in general. GeneaBloggers started a week-long series on the subject, with the first installment on the topic of this post. This is something I've thought about a lot recently, because I'm only working part-time right now. One consequence of that has been spending an inordinate amount of time on my genealogy obsession hobby. I'd love to turn it into a career, but I'm not quite sure how.

One thing I do know, I'm not going to make any money blogging. It's possible, otherwise there wouldn't be an entire cottage industry of spam blogs and content farms. As I wrote in my disclosure statement, any ads and affiliate links on my blog are a quixotic attempt at remuneration for time spent on blogging itself (not that it well ever come close to making up for the opportunity cost involved). Producing any significant revenue from ads would require lots of readers. I don't post often enough, nor have any sufficiently profound insights, to generate much readership. But that's perfectly OK with me. I'd keep doing this if nobody at all read my blog (which isn't far from the truth).

I started blogging for many reasons. Previously, I never kept any sort of research log. Now, I'm using blog posts to do just that; to describe how and where I found information, and analyze the sources. There aren't many such posts published yet, but I have several more in draft. Related to that, by posting names and details of some of my ancestors, I have the slim expectation one of my relatives will come across it. Then hopefully we'll be able to share information. It hasn't happened yet, but it's more likely with the information online than just written in a notebook.

Another big reason to blog is simply to write more. Conventional wisdom says more practice will improve your writing. The advice usually goes on to recommend writing a diary or journal, which falls on deaf ears with me. Not that I'm against journaling, it's just not something I'm interested in. (That doesn't preclude my dream of finding diaries from little known ancestors, especially the women, who didn't leave much of a paper trail in official records.) I don't aspire to a full-time writing career, but writing is a valuable skill for almost any endeavor. Of course, professional writing is usually expected to be less snarky, but I am capable of using a different tone. My academic writing is B+ certified, 97% sarcasm-free!

Some of the posts on this topic suggest blogging as a way for potential clients to find you. That might work for professional genealogists who already take clients, but it doesn't help a lot of us who haven't hung out our shingle yet. Besides, writing a pseudonymous blog is no way to attract clients. I'm not going to go into business by myself anytime in the foreseeable future, but more on that in tomorrow's post in this series.

Apr 16, 2011

Flora and Fauna, Part 1

Now for something (almost) completely unrelated to genealogy. I've visited all 50 states (lived in 8), and 21 different countries. Although I love to travel, my favorite place is still Minnesota. We might not have any mountains, but there are plenty of lakes and forests. It's easy to understand why my ancestors settled here. Some of the areas they came from in Europe resemble the geography here, in Sweden, Germany, and what's now northeast Poland.

My paternal grandfather was a consummate outdoorsman. He fished, hunted, and trapped into his eighties. On the other side of the family, my grandparents had the traditional Minnesota version of the American dream–a house in the city, and a cabin up north. I spent a lot of time up at the cabin in my childhood: swimming, canoeing, fishing... That dream's out of reach for most Minnesotans today, because lakeshore property is far too expensive. But spending time outdoors in northern Minnesota is still a favorite pastime.

Even within the Twin Cities, there are many places where you can't tell you're in the middle of an urban area with almost three million people. We have more lakes, more parks, and more bike trails than any other metropolitan area in the world. And I wouldn't trade it for anything. Here are a few photos I've taken of the wildlife in Minnesota.

A common loon on Cross Lake, MN. (The Minnesota State Bird)

More after the break...

Apr 14, 2011

Book Review: The Genetic Strand

The Genetic Strand was published in 2007–one of the more recent non-academic books on DNA related to family history. Having already read Smolenyak and Turner's book, and dozens of academic and popular articles on the subject, I wasn't hoping to learn much. It merely sounded like an interesting story. The author found several lockets of hair from his relatives in the mid-19th century, hidden in a secret compartment in some antique furniture he inherited. He had samples from the hair analyzed for DNA to shed some light on the people it came from.

The story of his ancestors is interspersed with short bits on the science of genetics, his visits to various forensic labs, conversations with scientists and relatives, and flashbacks to his childhood. He writes well, and the flow is easy-going, but he has some axes to grind. The author somehow feels guilt for events he had no part in, that took place long before he was even born. Studying his ancestors didn't give him a better understanding of who he is, it only gave him more contempt for the people and culture of his family's past; cousin marriage and racism (real and imagined) permeate his family.

Many white people with ancestors in the pre-Civil War south will inevitably find they include slave-owners. As objectionable as that was, there's nothing you can do to change the facts. Trying to hide it or cover it up would be wrong, but so is portraying your ancestors as monsters. Instead, celebrate the progress we've made as a civilization, where "owning" another human being is now considered unconscionable.

Rather than let the science of genetics speak for itself, the book is an incessant litany of race, class, and gender. That kind of mushy-headed, post-modernist pablum is only possible when one's head has been filled with the stuff at one of our so-called elite educational institutions, and swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. What he says about genealogists is particularly condescending:
Genealogy, a search for family history, is practiced by millions of middle-aged and middle-class Americans, for whom it has traditionally been a way to snatch a bit of glory or a helping of fantasy from the past. It is, after all, the little activities, visiting libraries and surfing Web sites, that allow anyone to acquire "good genes." Most people who do family research are white, and most of them look for ancestors with the goal to unearth the whitest, most moneyed forebears they can. That is one definition of good genes.1
Now, I've met genealogists whose only goal is to find a connection to royalty or celebrity, but they're not in the mainstream. The worst offenders I've encountered who claim descent from royalty or other famous ancestors had some of the poorest documented, shoddily researched family trees I've ever seen. I don't think they bothered to do any of the "little activities" like actually visiting a library, or more important: verifying information. They just make up lineages out of whole cloth. By painting with such a vicious, broad brush, he's undeservedly maligned millions of genealogists. Besides, much of the research he did to write the book was itself genealogy. In fact, he's written no fewer than three books that fall firmly into the family history genre.

He also doesn't seem to have actually understood much of the genetics. When a hair sample of one of his relatives from the distant past is tested, the results show maternal haplogroup D, which only occurs in Native Americans. Then he speculates how they might be related, and proposes a few scenarios, some that would be impossible to inherit mtDNA, which only passes from mothers to their children.2 He also misstates the capability and use of the FBI's CODIS program.3

The only redeeming qualities of the book are his warnings against taking scientific claims at face value, but even here he goes too far. Most so-called "journalists" are guilty of uncritically repeating claims by supposed experts, not just reporters on the science beat. (The author is a columnist himself.) That's one of the problems with a "profession" where the majority of education is about the craft of writing "journalism" itself, and very little on any substantive subject matter. His brief foray into the philosophy of science is both perceptive and bewildering. Yes, science has become a new religion to many people. If a scientist says something, it must be true! The problem here is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us. They're vulnerable to the same biases and mistakes as anyone. Unfortunately, neither the media nor the general public are usually well-informed or skeptical enough to ask a simple question: Is the claim within the domain of their expertise? Honest experts on TV are hard to find–ones who won't venture to guess at questions they're not qualified to answer. TV hosts usually badger them on until they give an answer, no matter how ill-informed. If they persist to evade the question, they probably won't be on TV again. But then his warnings extend to any corporate influence on science, and "The Vocabulary" that scientists use when they talk. Here, his postmodernism gets the best of him. Scientific research needs to be funded somehow. Corporate money is no more corrupting than the largesse of government grants. And every field has jargon that sounds foreign to outsiders. When they talk to others, they have to "dumb it down," and use much more verbose speech. It only makes sense that insiders use verbal shorthand when talking to each other, otherwise they'd waste time.4

I think part of the reason he disses the science is that he didn't get results he liked from the DNA testing. Besides normal genetic genealogy testing on himself and a couple cousins, most of his samples are from 150 year old hair. Many no longer contained any DNA, and the ones that did yielded conflicting results from different labs. I imagine that can be expected with samples that fragile. They might not have been able to extract a full sequence from any of the hair. I'm convinced that even after researching and writing an entire book on the subject of genetic genealogy, he still doesn't understand its limitations.

Most books I review are recommendations. I don't often read books I won't like. But once I start reading a book, I usually finish it, unless the writing or information are spectacularly bad. In this case, the premise sounded interesting. I'm only glad I found it in a public library, so it didn't cost me anything directly. Bottom line: Don't waste your money on The Genetic Strand, it's not even worth your time.

1. Edward Ball, The Genetic Strand: Exploring A Family History Through DNA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 129-130.
2. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 86, 104.
3. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 189.
4. Ball, The Genetic Strand, 240-243.

WikiTree

I hadn't planned on blogging about WikiTree, but I feel compelled to now. Although I briefly checked it out a while ago, my primary family tree is on Ancestry.com. The idea of using a wiki for a family tree intrigues me. I'm currently developing a wiki for a one-name study, but just as a standard wiki. The people have the same surname, but may or may not be related, so a family tree isn't even in the works at this point. I'm always interested in different ways to visualize information, but my plate is already pretty full, so I was vicariously following the WikiTree adventures of both Randy Seaver and DearMYRTLE.

I commented on one of DearMYRTLE's posts about the beta WikiTree embeddable widget, which has since been publicly released. A lively conversation ensued, and even the founder of WikiTree, Chris Whitten, entered the fray. I've seen him comment on other blog posts regarding WikiTree before, so that wasn't too surprising, but he created a "barebones" widget based on my suggestion. Now that's what I call customer service, and I wasn't even a WikiTree customer! Since he took the time to reply personally, and modified a widget just for me, it's only fair that I try it out (even if I'm a few weeks tardy).

I haven't input anything to WikiTree yet, so I wanted to find somebody I'm related to, which turned out to be quite easy. Apparently, some of my Callahan and Matteson relatives are already using WikiTree. So I used the "barebones" widget for my distant cousin, Blanche Callahan (we're both descendants of Thomas George Callahan):



Although there are a few quirks, I think it's a good start. Other variations of the widget include different background graphics and individual photos, if available. In a minimalist version like this, the blue and pink background color for men and women, respectively, is a nice touch. Definitely better than a solid white background. The tiny icons linking to the ancestral and descendant pages for each person are small enough to be non-intrusive, but still easily recognizable. One of my previous comments was to omit the places of birth and death, which this version does. Another was to include only the years of birth and death, which worked for the most part, except when "abt [year]" is specified. I'd also prefer the middle names be abbreviated or omitted.

As far as the technical implementation is concerned, I might have made some different design decisions. But that's easy for me to say, not having tried to create such a widget. HTML table-based layouts are passé among web designers, but I imagine a purely CSS-based solution would be prohibitively difficult. (Family trees are visually simple, but very complex diagrams to implement using web standards. Even with all their resources, Ancestry still uses HTML tables to layout their trees.) I'd probably have used a different URL format, like passing options via query strings. However, the format they did use is easy to understand, and straightforward to embed in another web page.

Overall, WikiTree has created a highly usable set of widgets to embed dynamically-updating family trees in other web pages. I'm not aware of any similar solutions. Otherwise, including a family tree in a blog post or other website usually requires static text or a graphic. Since that original blog post, they've added more versions of the widget. The straight paternal and maternal lines seem particularly useful for genetic genealogy.

It's obvious WikiTree listens to the feedback generated by their users, bloggers beta testing their widget, and even random commenters like me. Granted, it's still a young site; there probably aren't many others running large-scale, collaborative, genealogy websites who can afford such time. However, that kind of responsiveness is bound to generate goodwill among your userbase and the genealogy community in general. I wish other genealogy companies (or any company for that matter) would follow WikiTree's example.

I've already put lots of time and money into my Ancestry family tree, so I'm not in the market for another online tree. Once somebody figures out how to replace GEDCOM with a lossless data format that's widely adopted in the industry, I might move my primary family tree. But until that happens, I'll definitely recommend others checkout WikiTree.

I'm back

So I haven't posted anything in a few weeks. It's not that I fell off the face of the Earth or anything. I was just busy with other pursuits, and got distracted (something I'm wont to do). I like writing, but two aspects of my personality conspire against making any progress: I'm about the world's biggest procrastinator, and I'm a perfectionist. Before I actually hit the "Publish Post" button, I've probably edited and revised every sentence multiple times, and I'm still never satisfied with my writing. Since I started this blog, there have always been almost twice as many posts in various stages of draft than I've published total. I don't know if I'll ever be able to dig myself out of that hole.

Unlike writing in my academic career, I have no problem coming up with topics for blog posts. However, as soon as I start one, something else comes up, and I abandon it for a while. Most of my posts end up being rather long, since I clearly lack the virtue of brevity. I'm not trying to write book length essays, it just takes me quite a few words to explain the ideas in my head. I suppose I should try to write shorter, more frequent posts, but I haven't figure out how to do that yet. My first post was about two months ago, and there are 16 posts thus far (not including this one). So I'm averaging one post about every four days. My plan is to increase that to about every other day, at least from this point going forward.