Why Don’t You Pursue Your Family History?

I’d like to ask anyone reading this post to answer the following poll.  Call it Genealogy, Family History, or…  If you don’t work on your Family History, why not?

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Why “Bubble?!” – 10 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

It’s tough to come up with a device that reasonably simulates the relationship of an individual to the rest of the world. When I was thinking it through a year or so ago, it seemed like I was coming up with a computer game. It’s been hypothesized – and being a Computer Engineer it is pretty natural for me to accept – that the human consciousness amounts to a program running in the human brain. We have at least 5 (probably more, but these 5 describe things pretty nicely) senses with which we interact with the outside world. There is no direct physical contact between our program and our world. Our consciousness seems to be able to encompass things – like our bodies, our cars, … – and be able to have a sense of where those things we have encompassed are in the world in relation to other things for navigation, collision avoidance, etc. We seem to build a 3D model of the world in our brains and move ourselves (whatever we are encompassing at the time at least) through that world. As we do this, we are running ourselves through scenarios to determine where we will be safe, where we will be in trouble, how we will reach our objectives, etc. The last time I read on the topic was The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger – I considered this to be an excellent and revealing discussion. Metzinger calls consciousness our Phenomenal Self Model, or PSM.

If this all sounds complicated, that’s good. If it doesn’t, then unfortunately you are probably vastly underestimating what you are going through as a human being. Our program of consciousness is far beyond anything we scientists and engineers have so far been able to imagine – at least as an implementation.

Take this a big step further. What we’ve been discussing in these essays is understanding and managing relationships with other human beings. What this implies is that you are attempting to create a model in your brain for how people will respond to your actions – hopefully in a manner that will meet your objectives. Evidently our brains and the programs they run are built for these sorts of things. While these essays are not really ABOUT relationships, relationships are central to good things and bad things, so we must attempt to understand them. Our approach might be:

  • Objective – have my neighbor “like” me
  • Possible Plan – act “fun,” smile, say nice things, show interest in their interests
  • Empathize – Attempt to put yourself in your neighbor’s shoes, and figure out how your neighbor might react to your possible plan
  • Modify – If you can’t empathize with reacting as your neighbor the way you wish them to react, then go back to “Possible Plan,” rethink, and try again
  • Implement Plan
  • Integrate – Take the reactions you’ve observed and use them to change your objective if needed, and start back at “Possible Plan” repeating as necessary

This process of reflection and running yourself through scenarios and making/executing plans is highly likely to be rewarding, and seems to be ignored more as we continue to be inundated with information. I just watched Amber Case’s TED Talk “We Are All Cyborgs Now:”

She presents a very interesting perspective including a reference to the fact that we do NOT take enough time to reflect on our actions since we have an almost limitless number of things we can “check” if we are so inclined. The act of checking things is likely just easier than taking some time to reflect upon what is important to you and then making/executing a plan.

There are several reasons why I chose the bubble analogy. The most important is that your relationships have no direct connection to your body, and yet, if you chose, it is at least possible to try to encompass them in your Phenomenal Self Model (PSM). Trying to predict, much less to productively influence, someone else’s opinions and actions toward/about you is no mean feat. Add more people and actions that can occur that are removed from your direct experience by one or more levels and it can become truly complex.  Bubbles are also interesting because they at least seem at times to defy the laws of physics (of course they don’t, but that’s another discussion).  Using bubbles as a device to discuss the properties of relationships seems like a reasonable fit.  You might wish to attract another person or group, repel, increase your value in someone’s eyes, make yourself (seem) fun to be with, make yourself seem like a solid business partner, make yourself seem like you can’t do something so that “they” won’t ask you to do it, etc., etc. Of course, you can do this with or without the internet.  The internet primarily gives you more volume to encompass with your PSM, and more opportunities to influence. Maybe this is where the sixth sense argument I referenced earlier applies.

If I Can’t Scan My Photo Prints in Right, Then Why Do It?

There are good reasons to get a representation of your photographs (recorded images) scanned so that they can be stored in digitized form:

  • If you have your negatives and prints properly stored, then with digitization you have a 3rd form with several options available for storage
  • There are computer tools available that can be used to enhance your photographs (restoration, modification, creation of collages/posters, etc.)
  • There are computer tools available that can be used to share your photographs with others
  • Etc.

There is much discussion and some controversy over how best to scan your recorded images. On a good negative, there is likely much more information available for scanning than you need for simple images. Much depends upon what you will wish to do with the scanned images in the future. If you wish to print large, high resolution images, then you need higher resolution scans. If you plan a one-to-one print, then some say a 300 dpi scan is sufficient. The higher resolution scans use significantly more storage capacity.  What to do?

Yes, your prints/negatives might deteriorate or be lost, damaged, or destroyed. However, unless you take no care of them – which I gather is unfortunately the case for a lot of prints/negatives – then the probability that they will become useless is much higher than that they will be destroyed. As clarification for this statement, a recorded image is in danger of becoming useless in my definition when there is no one who remembers anything interesting about the photo. An image is recorded so that it can evoke something in the mind of the observer. The act of computerizing a recorded image does nothing to address this fundamental issue. The memories that make a recorded image useful are far more fragile than the recorded image.

My answer to “What to do?” is to get a reasonable representation of your photos digitized somewhere, and find a way to use that to get your recorded images documented – the latter being the most important aspect of the exercise. I gave my answer away in a prior post – “Photo Indexing Project” – so feel free to have a look at that post. I’ll be talking more about what I believe is a good solution to the problem in the future. You have time to figure out the RIGHT way to scan your photos – but with every day that passes you are losing opportunities to acquire the stories behind some of them.

We received a Christmas Card for 2010 from a couple Julie and I know from High School. This summer when I was working on our photos, I was in our home town and I nearly called his mother to discuss possibly working with his family to document their photos. I learned in their card that his mother died in October. While I don’t know yet whether she was still capable of helping with the project, it seems to me like this was probably a tragic missed opportunity and it makes me sad that I didn’t help these good friends preserve some of their family memories!

Relationships and the Internet – 9 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

For our purposes in these essays, I’ll define relationships to you as encompassing people who know you, or know of you and can influence aspects of relationships that are important to you. You might find it useful to graph your relationships on a 2X2, with one axis representing increasing importance of a relationship to you, and the other axis representing your level of overt efforts to influence that particular relationship – either directly or indirectly. This process of discovery as you determine which relationships matter and why is, depending up the complexity of your situation, one of the more important and perhaps difficult you can perform. There are lots of articles out there discussing relationships, connectedness and things like degrees of separation.  I encourage you to seek them out as they are interesting and sometimes relevant to this discussion. Remember that you do not need to have intentional or direct contact with someone to have a relationship with them, and even these indirect relationships can be quite important to you.

If you are closely managing your relationships, this probably means that you are actively trying to influence people to think what you want them to think about you and their relationship with you. This can be quite complex, and can involve understanding not only the relationship you are trying to influence, but the relationships that person has with others that will influence how they view their relationship with you. Recall in an earlier post that “I went out on a limb just a bit” and made the following statement:

“I submit to you that all of the good things and all of the bad things” that happen to us “in this world happen to us because we are social.”

For purposes of this particular portion of the the discussion, I should probably replace “because we are social” with “because of or as a result of our relationships.”  Relationships are central and crucial, whether we recognize/admit it or not.

I’m making the argument that the central discussion of Internet Use, then, is about how it affects your relationships and how it helps or hinders you from getting what you need and avoiding what will harm you. If you are able, please consider your relationships with, and then without the Internet. Please consider and answer the following poll:

Since you found this series of essays, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the Internet. You likely know that regardless of whether or not you use the technology, there will be things about you here. Public records are available – some freely and some for the determined among us. There may be things mentioned about you by friends, relatives, enemies, news organizations, volunteer organizations, etc. You might put your head in the sand and ignore it, but the fact is that there are likely things here about you. Effort you put into understanding what is said about you – with and without the Internet – and that you put in to managing how that information affects your relationships can pay dividends for you (if you are at least somewhat adept). Unless you are a hermit – which you can’t be if you are reading this – you are busily affecting the relationships others possess and may be trying to manage (By the way, please feel free to affect my relationships by clicking “Like” on these essays and making (hopefully nice) comments!).

While arguable, I believe that the most significant impact of the Internet on relationships and knowledge is to accelerate the process of acquiring information (as an Engineer, I could argue that this in the ONLY direct impact, and the rest is consequential). For the most part, the information made available about people on the Internet is something that, with time and persistence, could have been acquired elsewhere. I say could have been. I don’t say would have been. The time compression concept is a game changer in many ways. Just like digital photography is creating an explosion of (digital) photographs, the Internet has created an explosion in the availability of information – some of it about you, and some of which would have never been “said” without the Internet. In fact, the internet seems to encourage people to say things that perhaps should never have been said. And what is said might be true, half true, or complete fabrication from any given source at any given time.

At a fairly basic level, what this means to your relationships is:

  • Significantly more opportunity for indirect relationships
  • More opportunity for relationships in general
  • Many more sources of problems and solutions
  • Things that are said, with or without attribution, that can be very difficult if not impossible to control and can gain exposure to a wide audience very quickly
  • More opportunities to occupy time that causes you to withdraw from important relationships
  • Possibly spending too much time passively checking “things” and not enough time spent on active relationship planning and implementation of those plans
  • Exposure of enough (sometimes seemingly unimportant) information to give “Bad Actors” what they need to cause you harm

The list can go on.

A bit more discussion of Bad Actors is likely worthwhile. It is possible to underestimate this problem just as it is possible to overestimate it. Public records provide lots of revealing information. Some localities protect this sort of thing more than others, but in many places I can figure out your home value for tax purposes (along with your address), and pretty good estimate of your home’s market value, contact information, and if I’m persistent enough, a whole lot more. Recall, though, that this information was already available – the Internet simply makes if faster and perhaps simpler to access it. Unless our government legislates more privacy on the Internet, there is likely not much you are going to be able to do about this issue. Remember – this is PUBLIC INFORMATION. You can try if you like. In my opinion, it is likely better to know what is said about you, and protect yourself much as you would without the internet. Be VERY private with your social security numbers, credit card numbers, driver’s license numbers, etc. When banks ask you to use your mother’s maiden name or brother’s middle name or anything like that, you might do well to have a secret response to this type of question rather than using the actual information since these things are discoverable. Be very cautious about using publicly available wifi for internet access. Don’t use a financial service that isn’t https – the “s” at the end tells you it is an encrypted service and it is very difficult for anyone to determine what is being communicated between you and the service in that case. If you are on a public wifi and using http (not https), it is possible for someone skilled and also on the same network to see what you are doing and even access the service you are using and pretend to be you. They likely won’t be able to change/access your passwords, etc., but they would be able to change information you post, and likely be able to see things about you that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. The probabilities are at least somewhat in your favor on this, but be aware that bad actors are out there and be as prudent as you are able to be. You should also be very careful about sharing settings on your computer when using this type of network. Since the information people can get about you can be very timely, you will want to consider that giving someone your location in a Tweet or Facebook entry can give a Bad Actor information that will help him/her cause you harm. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of computer security. Just recall that as in your non-Internet life, you are certainly no less vulnerable in your Internet life and in some ways likely more so. Share on the Internet only what you are willing to share in your non-Internet life, and know that you run a higher risk of reaching an unintended audience than you would without the Internet. If you have questions about this topic, please feel free to ask them in comments.  I can not assure you an answer, but will try to at least help you in your research on the topic.  Just keep in mind that people are more likely to find information that has been shared about you by you and others, and the information they find about you has a better chance to be timely information.

Photo Indexing Project

I mentioned in a recent post that Julie has collected a large quantity of family historical records. This includes a surprising quantity of photos, some of which were waiting for us at our parent’s homes. Since we’re “free as birds” we’ve been spending some of our time there. Looking at stacks of photo albums, suitcases full of loose photos, and Julie working tirelessly at assembling our family history compelled me to devise a project to put all of these photos online and provide a system for documenting them.

As I looked through the photos, the thing that really frustrated me was the fact that most of them had no documentation. Some did, and we’re lucky for that. The rest are just photos with a hint here or there via resemblance, an occasional print date, etc.  Old photos are cool – at least many of them. Even the ones with documentation mostly just state simple facts – who, when and maybe where. Very few provide family or other historical context, what was happening in the photo or what led to the photo, etc. Julie and I are very fortunate that my mother and both her parents are alive and their memories are quite good. They’ve already played a significant role in this project, and we plan for that to continue.

The information that can be used to make a photograph a meaningful family heirloom exists in the minds of people that know something about the photograph. As time passes, memories fade and people die. Attempts are made to pass along these memories, but rarely are they organized or lasting. Computers and the Internet provide amazing opportunities to solve problems like these. So far, I’ve uploaded around 12,000 photographs. Most of these came from our parents collections – their own and their ancestor’s. It would be interesting to know how many photo prints others have in their collections, so please take a moment to answer the following poll:

When someone comes around to the conclusion that they want to “organize” their photo collection, the task can seem overwhelming. To scan or not to scan, and how to I approach scanning? Should I physically organize the photos? What about photos that are already in albums? How do I document the photos, and how do I associate the documentation with a given photo? The questions are many, and I haven’t found many useful discussions of the subject.

Between Joel and I, we’ve put together a pretty good solution to the problem of DIY computerization of a significant photo collection. We’re working hard to perfect the solution, and in the process, we’ve discovered quite a few things. One of the more significant is that it is REALLY hard to get people interested in the problem. This is much like Genealogy in general – either you are interested and have time and have the propensity and you work on it, or the stars aren’t aligned and you don’t. It’s a lot of work (Genealogy AND organizing your photo collection). Computerization and the right approach dramatically changes the level of work involved, but it’s still a lot of work. I’m sure I’ll talk about the photo organization approach more in the future.

We have concerted efforts by several companies today to index public records. The amount of information available already makes the pursuit of genealogy through online research very fruitful – to the point where offline Genealogists can no longer claim that there is nothing but junk online with respect to Genealogy – that’s simply no longer the case.

Why aren’t there more efforts in place to promote the indexing of family records like photographs? These would naturally be conducted by the families themselves, since they are the ones that would gain from the exercise if anyone would. I suppose it gets back to the problems I discussed in an earlier post about gaining broader participation. Let me conclude with another poll:

The Relationship Bubble – 8 – A Guidebook to Internet Use Self-Assessment

I briefly introduced a device – “The Relationship Bubble” – in the introduction to this series of essays. I did this immediately after discussing what it MIGHT have been like as a baby inside your mother’s womb. At that point, that was your life. You had few if any needs that weren’t automatically satisfied. You could interact with the world, but only in very limited ways. At certain points along your journey as a fetus, you began to sense things. You began to touch, taste, hear, and probably smell. You interacted with your mother in various ways, including how you moved, what you touched/pushed/prodded/kicked, etc. You were developing your first relationship, and for the more sensitive families your mother was probably helping you develop other relationships as she described your actions – either real, imagined, or created by her.

In this context, you could say your mother’s womb was your first relationship bubble – fairly literally in fact. That said, even as early as this, your family and perhaps others were likely creating a more figurative but no less important relationship bubble for you. This relationship bubble is made up of things like your family relationships with the rest of the world, your family background, aspirations, limitations, etc., etc. These castles in the sky that others create about you (intentially or otherwise) become what I’m planning to term your relationship bubble. Over time and as you begin to be more adept at communications through your own actions, you adopt more and more of your own bubble and then over time you begin to control more significant portions of it. You are never in complete control of your relationship bubble, and it lives on even after you die.

Your relationship bubble is bounded by the things that any other individual is exposed to about you that influences their beliefs about you. It starts out with a life of its own – since it is initially created in the context of our situations – and then we have opportunities to influence it until we die and then it lives on in people’s heads and evolves as others want it to evolve until what is left is largely what you and others recorded about it and what others choose to record about it posthumously. I choose not to for purposes of these essays, but you might call this bubble your identity. It is really how others perceive you, and how they choose to influence how others perceive you – which becomes a part of your bubble just as much as, and sometimes more than your own actions.

Comprehending the concept of a relationship bubble and attempting to exercise some level of control over it is highly significant and challenging. Please take a moment to read the story about “Blind Men and an Elephant.”  Now consider that, while not something the observer can touch (unless you are in physical contact with the observer – totally unnecessary to the development of perceptions about you), the part of your relationship bubble that is exposed to any given observer is dependent upon their frame of reference, the information that is made available about you from any source, etc. This will be different – sometimes dramatically different – from one observer to the next. It might even be useful for you to consider your relationship bubble to be separate for different people and/or constituencies in your life.

Some people manage their relationship bubble carefully and extensively. Others pretend that it doesn’t exist. The rest of us are on a continuum between these extremes. The essence of this series of essays is to discuss how internet use influences the management of our relationship bubbles.

Designated Family Historian

We sold our house in Garland earlier in 2010 after about 7 months on the market.  The experience of downsizing our belongings was painful to say the least!  I could – and may well at some point – go on and on about the experience, but I wanted to note some fairly specific observations at this point.  We ended up at the end of the day with over 10 boxes of photos and other family records that Julie has accumulated from quite a number of sources.  She had all sorts of stuff handed down from various estates – either from the estates themselves or from others who simply didn’t know what to do with the materials.  My Mother still had a couple of suitcases full of photographs from her parents and my dad’s parents estates, and she says she shared the photos from her parents’ estate with her brother.  Some of our own stuff was likely mixed in with the collection, but our own extended well beyond those 10 boxes.

Julie has been pursuing family history for about as long as she can remember, and the bug has really taken hold as all of the latest internet tools have really started gaining traction – ancestry.com, familysearch.com, etc.  She really started trying to use computers for the task in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s when she published a 2 volume set on the Berven family.  She used the Personal Ancestral File program at the time to help organize the documentation, and the Berven descendants enthusiastically supported the effort.  We had a couple of family reunions in the Estherville area, and Julie even needle-pointed a 4 generation family tree that’s currently hanging at my Mother’s house.  Life interrupted these efforts for quite a while, and I managed to lose that particular PAF file for her in attempts to back up the system she was using (which is ironic and disturbing, but that also is another story).  We have the entire text of the book in several forms electronically, and several copies of the book, but given all the special Norwegian characters used in the book, it would have been a real time-saver to be able to convert the files to gedcom and upload them.  Water under the bridge…

Julie is slowly but surely getting the Berven Family History rebuilt on ancestry.com.  It is now a history of all branches of our children’s family tree – Prentis, Tennant, Main, Stephens, Watts, Needham, Hansen, Berven and related families.  As far as we can tell (and we’re in the business), she’s using most of the best that the Internet currently has on offer for the task.  She has varying levels of collaboration ongoing with large numbers of people.  I’m biased in my belief, but others have told her that her tree is a fine work.  She’s done it all out of the goodness of her heart (and it’s mighty good).  She helps others selflessly, and others help her almost without exception on the same generous terms.

Aside from tooting Julie’s horn, my goal here is to openly wonder a bit about the pursuit of family history in general.  She spends a great deal of her time at this – searching, communicating, collaborating, investigating, sleuthing, etc., etc.  She has over 41,000 people in her main tree, and the main lines in the tree are well researched and documented.  There are over 5000 photos – including tombstones, documents, people, etc.  I believe this pursuit is and has pretty much always been a highly specialized pursuit and the folks that do it tend to become a “designated family historian.”  Other family members send information their way when they learn something, but other than that many probably don’t get involved in the heavy lifting.  I suspect that as more and more tools become available, the problem of involvement is becoming more acute.

The biggest question in my mind centers around how the barrier to involvement might be lowered to get more people involved in the process?

Is the problem of low involvement centered around difficulty, lack in interest, lack of time, …?

So far, the television series put together by ancestry.com – “Who Do You Think You Are?” – is excellent and seems well targeted.  Hopefully with repetition, it will start to address any lack of interest that exists, and then it will be up to industry participants – ancestry.com included – to “seal the deal” with potential new participants and create some more designated family historians!