Saturday, April 18, 2015

On a Battlefield

I'm writing this post on a miraculously tiny computer with a weak internet signal from a tent on the site of a battle from a war that ended 150 years ago.

I can hear someone playing a guitar somewhere, and I can hear my friends telling stories by a fire - a fire where our scout troop just retired six worn flags. In the flag ceremony, we heard about the men (and women!) who fought to keep our country together, the first responders and emergency personnel who keep us safe, and the civil servants who represent us in public office. It is one of the only times an American can burn the flag - and there are a number of customs incorporated in the ceremony to demonstrate respect for it.

It's hard to convey the depth of this to a gaggle of tired young people who just spent a day on a 15-mile bike tour of the battlefield. It's hard to convey to them how close they are in time, as well as space, to the people who died here.

Listening to some of them talk about war, and winning, and glory... and killing... I wish I could say something to them about what I'm seeing on this battlefield.

Because I understand that while we - the United States - won the conflict, we're still fighting that war. I study my family history, and I know how many of my great-grandparents fought, suffered, and sent children and fathers off to return broken, if at all. I know what those people wanted their war to be about, and I know that to these children, 150 years is an unimaginable eternity, and few of them grasp how profoundly different their world could be had things on this battlefield not turned out the way they did.

And I doubt their parents have thought about how remarkable it is that these children think Evil was defeated here. I don't know how we can explain to them that when the fighting ended, evil was still our neighbor, and forgiveness had to begin.

I heard some of the boys talking about other wars - castigating the British, denouncing the Nazis, and bitterly repeating what garbled accounts they have in their minds about Vietnam. I wonder when they will realize that in every case, once the guns fell silent, the survivors had to figure out how to put their world back together.

I have no doubt that some of these boys - maybe even my own - will end up in a uniform, trying to survive so they can put the world back together again. But I'd rather hope that we can figure out how to keep the fighting from happening.

This battlefield is a tourist attraction now. It's a solemn one, but there's no denying that people are here in their RVs, tents, and campers to enjoy themselves. Part of me feels bad about that.

But then I look into the fire at the ashes of retired flags, and realize that this is what the fighting was about. It was always about making a future that was better than what had come before the fighting.

And I'm on this battlefield, sleeping not far from my future, writing about it on a miracle.

That's how I know it's better, and that we won.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Boring Inner Demons

Over the past year, I have grown increasingly angry.

This anger stems from events at work. I love my job - despite the past year's events - but I am not at liberty to talk about work, and that's part of the problem. Fortunately, for you to understand my anger, you only need to know that I've watched helplessly as my management has systematically applied the OSS Simple Sabotage Manual's rules to running our organization. (Particularly Timeless Tips #1 and #3.)

But events at work are not why I'm writing this post. They are just the catalyst that have propelled much of my behavior this year.

If you've known me and followed my blog for any length of time, you may be able to figure out how I deal with stress. Some people struggle with self-destructive behaviors, some people indulge in physical activity; others take solace in their religion. I indulge in my nerdishly obsessive hobbies. In extreme cases, the choices people make can upset their life completely and force them to start over. When that happens - when their entire life seems to go up in flames around them - either they or someone they hurt in the process will describe them as struggling with their Inner Demons.

I know enough to realize that everyone has some kind of Inner Demon to deal with - something within themselves that they struggle to control and steer into constructive work. Most people easily recognize that struggle when they see someone acting out in stereotypical ways. We've all known someone who destroyed their body and their relationships as they tried to numb their pain with excessive partying; we've all known a few people who have done the same damage chasing after salvation through a faith, through a lifestyle change, or through simply hitting the reset button and walking away.

Whatever you think about my characterization of people who use these different techniques, you have to admit that you understand them. These are ways that normal people deal with adversity - whether internal or external in origin. And those of us watching from outside can be very creative when it comes to figuring out why people choose those actions - that's why such a colorful and fraught expression like "inner demons" is used to explain them. It's useful to unpack that phrase and see how it simultaneously tries to put blame inside the person who is suffering AND blame some external force beyond anyone's control.

As someone who does not believe in literal demons, I fully appreciate the usefulness of the metaphor. It's easier to acknowledge that one is having problems if there is a kind of entity apart from oneself to put the blame on. I can point to my "demon" and say, "That's an unfortunate part of myself that I need to get rid of in order to be happy."

But the truth is, no one really wants to get rid of their demon.

In my case, my demons are not the young, attractive, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style demons that you can kick in the face and turn to dust with a stake. I am not haunted by the sexy ghost of James Dean or driven to act out through excessive drinking, driving fast cars, pursuing damaged women, or any of the other socially discouraged (but secretly admired) behaviors that sell so many songs and movie tickets.  No, my demons are as nerdy as I am.

My demons drive me to obsessively focus on details. They push me to ignore basic, fundamental everyday personal maintenance and spend hours... days... digging through dry texts and looking for small truths. They compel me to catalog, sort, order, and process things that don't need to be ordered; and they do this at the expense of things that do need to be dealt with.

For me, the vicious cycle is not to drink away the pain, and then face the physical hangover the next morning with the "hair of the dog" - no, for me, the cycle is one where I spend my whole day pursuing records for obscure relatives and wake up Sunday morning having failed to do my taxes.

My inner demons, in short, are boring as shit.

And I hate that I allow this cycle to continue. I hate that I can sit here and analyze it, and know exactly what I'm doing (or not doing) and just helplessly go along with it. I hate that what I'm addicted to is some elusive kind of success that only my inner demon cares anything about. I already know that nothing I do will win me enough approval to make up for the things I keep neglecting.

And that adds to the stress.

And the stress fuels that demon.

The worst part is that over the years, I have been able to channel my energy into useful and productive pursuits. My success at work (until this last year) has been driven by my ability to dive into mountains of detailed data and come out with a compelling story. That same ability is behind my family history blog, and the projects I'm trying to work on there. I can even credit this inner demon with focusing my energy on the single-minded, obsessively detail-oriented things I needed to change in order to save my marriage. I managed to break away from the lifestyle of arguing on the internet to do that - and that was no small thing for me.

It boils down to finding the right way to escape from the stress and using the anger to do something constructive. I want more than anything to be good at what I do - in whatever context I am doing it. I want to be good at work; I want to be a good partner to my General; I want to be a good dad. But when I fail at those things - and all of the subtle ways that I fail seem to resist a solution - the pressure builds to retreat into my current obsession.

There are a number of things I should have been doing instead of writing this. I should have been doing our taxes. I should be sanding and painting our hall closet. I should have been planning and arranging some kind of 20th anniversary celebration. I should have...

but that's the problem.

As hard as I try to force myself to do things I'm not comfortable doing, and as hard as I strive to trivialize these tasks in my mind to reduce the sense of burden attached to them, I can't fool myself; I know that I'm terrible at these tasks. They will eat up most of my day and likely result in failure; it will also be a failure to not do them at all. And that double burden of failure starts the cycle. As soon as I am distracted, or my subconscious can find a reason to do Something Else, my Inner Demon will gladly "forget" what I was trying to do... and I will wake up the next morning with a back sore from sitting in my crappy computer chair, eyes red and tired from staring at the screen, wanting nothing more than to dive back in and chase the breakthroughs that will justify the time and effort of doing the research in the first place.

 But my point is not to ask for sympathy or to motivate myself to give up my hobby for the sake of housework. The point is to explain how doing dead simple things that a normal person should be able to do without a lot of drama and agony is a major victory for me. I want you to understand that when I manage to do these things and maintain the pretense that I am a normal, capable adult, this is a Big Deal. I may not be kicking an addiction, or performing some Walter Mitty style feat of achievement, but I am winning.

Because even though they are boring, and sometimes useful, my Inner Demons are still demons.  And it's still hard to kick them in the face.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Guess Chicks Just Don't Have a Sense of Humor

Update: the friend I mentioned whose Tweets motivated this post was horribly offended at the way I characterized him in this post. I have modified the text to be more fair to him, and to attempt to make it clearer that my criticism is not of him, personally, but of the idea that "the feminist reaction to this incident was bullying or was out of proportion."
-T+

A few years ago, I used an expression in the office to indicate that I had been mildly cheated.

I said I was "gypped" out of something.

It's an expression I've heard used without comment my whole life. In some cases, when it was used, it was indicated that it was the polite and acceptable version of a similar expression used to malign Jewish people. Most of the people I have known my whole life would never say they were "jewed" out of something (though I have heard it, obviously), but they would say they were "gypped" without a second thought.

But when I used "gypped" I was promptly scolded by a co-worker. "My grandmother was Hungarian, and she would have slapped you for that!"

I was taken aback, because after all, I spent the first thirty-something years of my life thinking that was a safe thing to say. I felt a little outraged at being scolded, of course, and it seemed like such an insignificant thing to be complaining about.

But because I am a grown up, I had to own up.

It had never occurred to me that "gypped" had anything to do with "gypsies." Nor had I put together that people identified with the Roma and Eastern European folks in general had been mistreated and maligned with this expression for generations - though I am a linguist and a generally smart person, and I probably should have figured that out at some point.  In the end, my reaction to being called out for it was to apologize and I have avoided using that term ever since.

Of course, I COULD have thrown a fit about Political Correctness Run Amok and explained carefully and patiently to that co-worker just how she should feel about me, a privileged white male, using whatever damned words I like. Or I could have decried a culture in which, to borrow from Richard Dawkins:

"An unhealthy reactionism is being cultivated whereby every action by every human is hijacked as a commentary on [someone else]."

I could have pretended that I was the victim for being scolded. But there is a term for that kind of person, too, which is all too appropriate: "dick."

So why did I tell you this story?  Because last week, the "Shirtstorm" happened.  Go to that link, and read all about it if you aren't already familiar with that story.

I really didn't want to comment on this. I have other things I'd rather be doing. But I'm writing THIS because I have one dear friend keeps weighing in via Twitter, and he told me on said public platform that he is "sort of astonished that [I] don't think the collective punishment [by feminists] of the entire scientific community wasn't warranted." So this is my response to that - in much, much more than 140 characters.

From my friend's point of view, feminists "attacked" the ESA and the entire scientific community.  They "hijacked" what should have been an amazing scientific achievement (it was!) and they should have kept their outrage to themselves.

He referred me to this USA Today article in which Glenn Harlan Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) describes the shirt in question as being "made for him by a female 'close pal'" and decries "the online feminist lynch mob" which "forced...a tearful apology". All of this strikes me as hyperbolic muckraking, since a) no one was lynched, and b) the apology was in order. (And it doesn't matter that the "female 'close pal'" made the shirt any more than it matters that George Wallace had some friends who were black.)

(Update: my friend later pointed out that he agreed that the offending shirt was in poor taste and that the he agreed the apology was necessary. That was not obvious to me until after I wrote this post, and I'm adding this because it's not fair to him to imply that he is attacking that point. But I am leaving the rest of my remarks as they stand with minor edits because a) he claimed the USA Today article "doesn't go quite far enough," thus clearly claiming the stated opinions in it - including the use of the phrase "lynch mob" - as mirroring his own and b) my argument from the start has been that the reaction from women and men within the astronomical and STEM communities that prompted the apology was merited; it was the anti-feminist response (which my friend has clearly joined) which was out of proportion - a position also publicly stated by the American Astronomical Society.)

Here are the tweet cited in the USA Today article which constitute the "lynch mob" and their "collective punishment":

The Atlantic's Rose Eveleth tweeted, "No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt." 

and

Astrophysicist Katie Mack commented: "I don't care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn't appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM." 

Just so we're clear - I think those two comments were correct. I think Astrophysicist Katie Mack has all of the credibility and standing she needs to criticize the treatment of women in STEM. And I'm willing to take the bet that Rose Eveleth knows exactly how women are "welcomed" in the community. Any community dominated by men, that is.

Here's just a small sample of articles you can read about how welcoming the community is to women:

Why Women Leave Academia - The Guardian

Nature vs. Nurture; Girls and STEM - on Nature blogs

Gender Biases and the Science of Facing Reality - Scientific American blogs


Or maybe you prefer peer reviewed science on the topic:

https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~srugheimer/Women_in_STEM_Resources.html


I will reiterate: the apology was in order.

"I'm sorry, I didn't think about that before I did it.  I should have realized that in the current climate of 'GamerGate', where women are literally driven out of their homes by physical threats of death, rape, and violence, that this wouldn't be taken well. I should have realized that in the climate of 'ElevatorGate' where women who come forward to report abuse at conventions (including STEM events) are further harassed and blamed for the events, I should have known that this message would not be taken in the light hearted manner it was intended."

And Mr. Dawkins, should have learned his lesson already, having apologized for the "Dear Muslima" incident.  (Apparently, he did not.)

I will happily provide more links for anyone who doesn't know what GamerGate, or ElevatorGate is, or for anyone who doubts the assertions of abuse at conventions - well, not happily, because it is sickening that there ARE so many links to so many different incidents - but I am asserting that this is true: the scientific community DOES have a problem with women. They are NOT welcomed, and they are constantly reminded of their second class status.

And I would have been able to safely assert that before the Shirtstorm.

Yes, this shirt was a minor thing.  It was commented on, the error was admitted, and it should be over.

But it isn't.

Because Men have been offended, now.  They need to explain to these silly women why they don't need to be making such a big deal - after all, it's not like anyone got HURT, right?  It's important to maintain balance; the men shouldn't be criticized - that's practically lynching! Because if women were really being assaulted, harassed, attacked, threatened, "doxxed", DOS'ed, cheated (not gypped), and discriminated against, we would all line up and defend them... wouldn't we?

For the sarcasm challenged, let me "mansplain" this back to my fellow men:

We treat women like shit.  We ignore women the fact that we treat women like shit. And sometimes we act more offended when they speak up and tell us to knock it off than they do when they are actually, physically attacked.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that I've been paying attention to the women around me. I'm listening to them at work, reading their blogs and tweets online; I'm asking them questions, and I'm finding out just how often they don't report assault, harassment, and outright rape simply because they don't want to add the additional ordeal of being accused of making it up, or of bringing it on themselves. Think about that. It's like saying you don't want to report having your car stolen because you're afraid the police will arrest you for not protecting it enough. Only... way worse.

I work in the federal government, where we've been getting sensitivity training for 20 years, and one of my female colleagues recently left the agency because a manager grabbed her breast in a stairwell when no one was around. Why would she leave her job rather than report him?

Because she saw what happened to the women who complained about the jokes, the pictures, the (admittedly quiet) cat-calls, and the email harassment.

My wife works in the federal government. She was propositioned by a superior her first year on the job. She has watched promotions handed out which, while "earned" in one sense, were not earned according to merit and job requirements. She reports what she feels safe reporting, which isn't a lot. After all, the agency spent more resources trying to track down an anonymous report of wrongdoing than they did punishing the wrong doers.

(And do I need to recount the stories about what happens to women in the military who are deployed on ships or remote bases? I hope not, because I'd rather not.)

Yes, sometimes women are awful, too. Sometimes, good men are cheated in a divorce. Sometimes it really, really isn't fair that because of feminism, a lousy mother gets custody of the kids sometimes.  And of course, #notallmen - you've always got that to console yourself with.

But the reality is that women get the short end of the stick, and what really kills me is that none of the actual attacks on them ever seem to be called outrageous by Richard Dawkins, or by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, or by any of the chortling bros spreading memes about models wearing shirts with "scientist pin-ups" on them.

Do you want to know why feminists get outraged so easily? That's why. Because two tweets is a "lynch mob" but actual assault is just fodder for mocking feminism.

Fuck that shit.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New Project: Mightier Acorns

In case you missed this on Twitter or Facebook, I've started a new blog project based on my family history hobby called:

Mightier Acorns


My plan is to share research and photos about my ancestors in a way that I don't find boring - your mileage may vary, of course. I've already adapted some posts from the archives at Tad's Happy Funtime (added some details and photos; trimmed some of the philosophizing) and from an earlier, private version of the Mighty Acorns. There will also be some regular features popping up between stories:

  • requests for help identifying old photos (tentatively titled "Who the Hell is THAT?")
  • reviews of history and genealogy related books
  • meta-essays about doing research and writing history
  • another photo feature: "Great Beards of History"


I've got stuff planned out on a roughly weekly schedule at least through December, so I can promise you a few weeks of diversion. Give it a try, and spread the word - especially to family.

I hope to make this Acorn grow.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Platform Diving


Not all of my internet interactions (or face to face contacts!) end with bitter fights and acrimony. Sometimes, people actually like what I have to say, and some will even go so far as to tell me I should be in office.

That's not possible right now, because of the Hatch Act of 1939 - and I doubt I would really want to put my family through the ordeal that even a local elected official has to face. (My aunt sat a city council term a few years ago, and I saw what SHE had to put up with!)

But people don't say encouraging things to be mean, and whenever someone says that I should be "running the place", I do stop and think about what I would do if I were magically airlifted over the election process and sat in a position of power. And that kind of informs what I look for - so far, fruitlessly - in my candidates.

So here, off the cuff and with minimal deep thought, is my own, personal platform. If you find someone running who hits even 60% of these issues the way I do, let me know so I can make THEM take over!

Campaign Finance


I'm with Professor Lessig on this one - regardless of your party affiliation, you have to recognize that money - not speech - has corrupted our system. Clearly, there is a lot at stake in every election, and the ridiculous amounts poured into campaign spending - $7 billion in 2012 - could directly fund solutions for many of the issues being debated - which makes you wonder why, if the donors care about those issues, they're spending that money to make horrible candidates look more appealing.

Like the Professor, I don't think it's too late to do something about it; things are not as stark or as bleak as you might be led to believe. I wouldn't even push for new laws or rules on this one - I'd just use this as my campaign slogan: "I won't take your money."

No donations.  No apparatus. Want to help me? Get involved spreading the word - here's a JPG of my poster and a link to my YouTube channel. Want to sponsor me? Go vote.

If enough of you insisted on this as a standard requirement from every candidate, and refused to vote for anyone taking money to run for office, the amount they could fundraise would cease to matter. That won't make PACs go away, but I can't solve everything!

Free Market Solutions


The phrase "free market solution" implies a "free market problem." There are problems where the appropriate solution for a governmental body is to step back and let people vote with their money; and there are problems where the solution is to step in and create an incentive for them to make a better choice.

Healthcare? That's already not a free market. If it was, people would choose doctors the way they choose mechanics. Green energy? The energy market is already skewed and rigged, thanks to the practice of selling futures on unextracted (and often unlocated) oil and coal. Education? At every level, we see the corrosive effects of allowing "competition" for arbitrary test scores (which equate to money) to trump the real competition of acquiring skills, knowledge, and work in the desired field.

The point is not "I don't believe in the free market" - the point is that most of the people who scream for so-called free market solutions don't actually believe in the free market. That whole "government shouldn't pick winners and losers" idea is a great, flashing sign that they don't believe in the ability of informed adults to make the best decisions for themselves. What they really believe in is convincing you to give them free reign to continue picking the winners and losers their donors are paying them to pick.

Don't feel bad - this country has been trying to get this right since the founding.  (I'll spare you the lengthy history lecture about Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, monetary policy, and the evolution from tariff-based protectionism to subsidy-based protectionism.)

Shorter version: if you have a simple, common sense answer to a complex problem, it should by definition be easy to demonstrate it. And if it works, I'd support it.

The Role of Government


Not to oversimplify, but the point of having government is to give us all a controlled, non-violent mechanism for dealing with each other. We have a great founding document that lays out that mechanism; it has flaws, but it's designed to let us fix it, which is why women are voting now, and African-Americans count as 5/5 of a person, each. We still have work to do, as some of the compromises made to get the Constitution ratified still cause us problems, but we've made a good start.

I have no patience for anarchists who try to convince me that the government we have is "too Big" - if your goal is to live a lifetime in which you always get your way, your problem isn't government. That said, I live in Maryland, where they pass laws the way I pass gas* - frequently, and with obnoxious, invisible side effects.

Legislators should take a gander at The Death of Common Sense before they start drafting new laws, and representatives at every level of government should think hard about the rules they put into place... and even harder about removing those that are in our way.

(Of course, that will be easier for them if they follow my Campaign Finance platform, and aren't beholden to any powerful, wealthy donors.)

Social Issues


Most people I talk to agree on one thing when it comes to "social policy" - the government shouldn't meddle with personal affairs. Most of those same people also agree that the government should be protecting us from each other. One favorite quote I frequently hear is, "Your right to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose."

That's pithy, but Social Issues are so thorny precisely because it's rarely easy to tell where the "tip of the nose" is.

Gay marriage seems like an easy one to me, since other people getting married has no effect either way on my marriage. But because marriage is tied to so many other rules (see "The Death of Common Sense") many argue that it has an effect on theirs. I would err on the side of freedom and equality - let people do what they need to do, and if the rules get in the way, remove or rethink them.

What about public health policies, such as mandatory vaccinations? I don't want your infected children spreading disease to my family - so I should be able to make you get vaccinated, right?  Except... what about finding the balance between allowing patients to refuse treatment (including vaccinations) on religious grounds on one hand and preventing child endangerment due to that refusal on the other hand? What about abortion policy - balancing on those same grounds? What about "end of life" decisions? Where is the line between the fist and the nose in each of those situations?

I've never believed that the role of government extended to teaching morality. Government is necessarily limited to what facts and evidence can prove, and when the question is a moral one, government has to give way to the individual. Will your child die without that transfusion or chemo - that your god tells you they can't have? Will you decide to continue or terminate your pregnancy? Will you endure six more months (or years) of deterioration and agony with an unforgiving and expensive disease or go out on your own terms? I can't even tell you what I would personally do in each of those situations - if it were me, my wife, my parents, my children at stake - how could I possibly presume to make a law telling you what to do?

The best I can tell you is that given a choice of what to do with my vote, I'll do what anyone else should do: ask a lot of questions, make a lot of suggestions, and if it's still a no-win situation, I will lose.

The Common Sense Fallacy


The really tough challenge facing anyone trying to represent any group of you has little or nothing to do with common sense, or moral character, or family values - none of these popular and populist catch phrases that are designed to put you at ease and win your vote should actually put you at ease. If you're ever 100% confident in a candidate and you feel safe trusting them to make decisions on your behalf, that's probably when you should begin asking harder questions.

I've left a lot unsaid here, because this was supposed to be superficial. Since I'm not actually running for anything, you can argue with me or ignore me as you see fit. But you shouldn't be satisfied with any of your candidates if they aren't willing to talk about any of this stuff. Or worse, if they claim to have neat, tidy, uncomplicated answers. You need to challenge them, and their platform. And you need to do it all the time.

Because at the end of the day, I don't really believe that the blame for all our problems lie on the Government. There are certainly poor representatives and appointees, but every two to four years, you get a say in whether they keep their jobs. If you're compromising yourself when you vote for them, you have only yourself to blame.  That's the only Common Sense solution - paying attention, and holding yourself accountable.

Did you vote for a mainstream candidate because you thought your third party choice would lose, and you didn't want to "waste your vote"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you vote for a known criminal who will rip off your state's retirement fund because his opponent seemed "too young"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you not vote at all because "they're all criminals and liars, and I won't waste my time"? Guess what - you wasted your vote... and your time.

So, what do you think? Still want to put me in charge?

*Oh, yeah - did I mention that I'm unelectable because I'm a biological organism? And I make sick jokes, listen to obnoxious music, use bad words, laugh at everything, and annoy most of my friends. Just so you know.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 3

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game


"Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true.

"Part 2: Staking Claims and Proving Names" explored the limits of following evidence and raised some questions about...questions.



Chances are that you've seen one of those places that sells plaques and books on "your family name" or (even better) "your family crest" or Coat of Arms - something that speaks to your noble heritage, perhaps? Here's one that I found for the Callin clan years ago:

These kinds of things can be fun, and when you're just starting out with your family history research it can be very motivating to put something like this in that big empty space above where your great- or maybe great-great grandparents names peter out. But you have to be careful not to take them too seriously, because... well... these things aren't exactly what you could call "real."

As that article points out, individuals were entitled to wear such heraldry, and in certain cases a father could pass his arms to a son, but the likelihood of anyone in your family tree having ever been one of those individuals is vanishingly small. Remember each generation further back you go doubles the number of people who are your direct ancestors; 5 generations back in my tree puts us in the early 1800s and involves 31 people (including myself). To get back to the glory days of feudalism, you'd need about 15 generations...about 32,767 people out of the millions living back then.

I can't prove that you AREN'T related to someone who was entitled to such heraldry, but when you follow the evidence it should become clear to you that you can't bear the burden of proof to support any such claim. And that's sometimes a hard pill to swallow.

It can be tough for people to give up on a story that makes them feel special.

Solid Anchors


Up to this point, I've told stories that were supported by several different types of evidence, though I've only given examples of one type of evidence. So far, we've been talking about all of the documents that provide a form of testimonial evidence, but I haven't talked at all about scientific evidence - like DNA or archaeological research - or the physical evidence of still-extant houses and public buildings in the places where my ancestors are said to have lived. Because I do most of my research online, I personally tend to take a lot of that for granted. But that's okay for what I'm trying to prove.

One common goal for family historians is to document an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. If I want to apply for membership in an organization for descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, I only need to provide documentary evidence of my connection to them. I don't need to prove that the war itself happened. That war, and a lot of the details of who fought where and when are well documented. Physical evidence has been collected for two centuries, catalogued and tested, analysed and written down; so when we "prove" that one of our ancestors fought in that War, we aren't required to prove on our own, from scratch, that it occurred - only our connection to it.

When it comes to something that everyone generally accepts as fact, we tend not to question the details. It would be absurd to question the existence of the American Revolution every time it was discussed - but it's important to make this distinction: if you did question it, there is all of that evidence I just talked about supporting the Fact. Not just one document or one artifact, but multiple lines of study and chains of evidence.

The important thing to keep in mind is this: if I'm carrying on with my research and find evidence that shows that I'm NOT related to a Revolutionary War veteran, that can be a hard thing to accept. But even if I find that not one of my ancestors were in the colonies at that time, it doesn't make me any less American, and it doesn't call into question the historical fact of the War itself.

Life Rings


You may have noticed, too, that I tend to link to Wikipedia articles - perhaps when I reference a topic like the Revolutionary War - and you might have wondered why. A lot of folks have an unreasonable distaste for Wikipedia, in my opinion. Because anyone can edit it, it can be easy to dismiss it as being error-ridden or unreliable. But I've observed over the years that history itself can be unreliable. We find new evidence all the time that changes the way we understand what happened in history, whether that is a newly discovered fossil or new discoveries about Viking burials that change our assumptions about those topics.

Keeping up with the changes - and understanding which ones do and don't have merit - can be overwhelming. Wikipedia is not an anchor - it's more of a flotation device. If you're going to figure out which Facts are "true" and which things are "legend", you have to start somewhere, and Wikipedia represents a place where, if you happen to know about a subject, you can add it. If there is a mistake and you can provide a link to evidence that it is a mistake, you can correct it! (That link tells you how to change a page - this one tells you how to make your change credible.)

Evidence is the key, there. Being able to defend what you write to the swarms of editors is what keeps it honest - depending on how many editors are in a given swarm, naturally. That's incredibly valuable to me, because I am not a scholar, and I don't have time to research everything myself. That should be valuable to you, as well, because if we're going to answer a difficult or controversial question, then ultimately, our goal is always to find a credible source that we can both count on.

And this is the important bit: we don't have to agree on the conclusions we reach. I may show you my flimsy evidence that my 3x great-grandfather's farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it's okay if you aren't convinced. I may not be able to put it on Wikipedia, but I may still choose to believe it, and I will keep looking for other clues. But even if you reject my evidence of that fact, you won't be able to claim that he didn't exist, he didn't live in the right place at the right time, or that the Underground Railroad didn't exist - because those are established facts. There is plenty of other evidence that supports those conclusions, and roots them to the rest of our history.

A Few Words About Mormonism


The 12-year-old version of myself - from here on referred to as Believer Me - had already accepted the Bible as one of those anchors. It was established fact. There was no question. So it should follow that what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be able to prove it. But Believer Me had a problem: Mormons. Because this is already long, I'll let you watch this South Park episode, "All About Mormons" (which Believer Me would have adored) as background. 1

The problem was not simply that my Mormon friends believed different things than I did. The problem was that my Mormon friends made a lot of the same claims about their scriptures that I made about my own. They claimed archaeological evidence of their story (that a lost Israelite tribe settled ancient America), which never materialized outside of church-funded research; they claimed bias in the official criminal records of New York and other places that cast Joseph Smith as a con-man; and if I insisted on rejecting their interpretation of that evidence, they would offer various Special Pleading arguments - some of which struck too close to home, because I used them myself on non-believers.

I recognized at that age the importance of following solid evidence - and even though much of my faith was based on accepting what had been handed down to me without really questioning it, I naively believed that there really was evidence that would prove my faith to be the right one. After all, one of the things I was told all the time was that there were historical documents, physical evidence, and all kinds of archaeology backing up the Bible.

In this way, I was motivated by that uncomfortable realization - that these believers in a religion that I knew to have been fabricated in the 1830s could, after only 150 years have developed such an earnest apologia - and it drove me to question some things that I had always assumed to be Established Fact. If I was going to dismiss their claims, but honestly accept my own, I had to hold all of those claims to the same standard.

For that, I needed Evidence.

The Family Tree of Man (Biblical version)


Jump ahead 30 years to now. During that time, I looked for the evidence I needed to truly anchor the beliefs of Believer Me to the established facts of history. But there was a problem: there wasn't any.

(I apologize for that bald assertion, but that's what I learned. This took a long time for me to discover and come to terms with - if you're new to the idea, I don't expect you to just accept it. If you want to read more, there is a decent overview on Salon, or you can try Richard Carrier for a more scholarly research approach.)

Initially, I followed the advice of pastors and family, and kept looking; I literally kept the faith and for a long time, I convinced myself that I would find that evidence. Others tried to tell me it didn't matter - but it did. And this is one example of why.

Everyone who has ever tried and failed to read the entire Bible has joked about getting lost in all of the "Begats". When you hit certain books, there seem to be pages of them. "And Porcine begat Nadal, who begat Someguynamedezar, who begat Shumway by Alf who bade him lay with his porcupine..." you get the idea.

I tried several times over the course of the past couple of decades to map all of that out. I wanted to document all of it. Most recently, I started with Jesus Genealogies on Wikipedia and created a tree on Ancestry.com. Just as I had done with the George Callin Family History of 1911, I took it all at face value, and plugged it in as-is. If you've read that Wikipedia article, you already know what kinds of problems that caused me - but I wasn't done, yet! I tried to ignore all of that controversy and soldiered on - to 1 Chronicles 7:30-40.

If you want to see what I did, you should be able to visit this public tree and explore for yourself - this link should take you to Jacob (aka Israel). Look around. Wherever possible, I pasted in the passages that I got their information as sources. I put a few days' worth of effort into this, and when I started out, I planned to create citations and continue seriously as if I were doing my own family history. I can't stress that enough - I wanted to treat this project with the same rigor and skill that I bring to my own family history research.

But something dawned on me rather quickly. This was a pointless endeavor.

Remember the first post where I talked about "James 1st"? In my own tree, when the evidence I found didn't support his existence, I changed my records. They no longer said the same thing that the George Callin Family History said - and that's a good thing. That's how Wikipedia works - hell, that's how history works!

I use George's research as a starting point, and verify (or reject) what I can based on established facts. Evidence from multiple angles, disciplines, and sources told me that it is far more likely that my family descended from Patrick Callen than from James. Evidence from various places told me that Rosemary's "impression" that her grandfather William might have fought in the War of 1812 was wrong, and that it was probably Patrick - William's likely grandfather.

This is how evidence, scrutiny, and facts are supposed to work. You are supposed to change your story to fit the facts... but there is no way to do that with the contradictory Biblical accounts of the genealogy of mankind. Because as soon as you "fix" the Biblical account, you are breaking the Law - of the Bible, at least.

This isn't just a theological problem, either; it's a problem of basic scholarship. If you don't allow me to "fix" problems and correct the text as new information becomes available, then it is no longer history; it is just another legend I can't use. If you do allow changes, then it begins to unravel, as there is too much in the book that is fantastic, self-contradictory, and contradicted by things that we have learned in the last couple thousand years. In short, if you follow the evidence, there is no way to tie the Biblical accounts of anything - particularly the genealogies - to established fact.

The problem for Believer Me wasn't ultimately in the evidence, though; I would have been perfectly happy to throw all of the evidence away if I could just have my Anchor back. But after finding that there isn't any reliable evidence to support my faith, I had to admit that there wasn't any more compelling reason to adhere to my childhood faith other than that was what I was told to believe.

Where Does It All Lead?


For me, it took a long time to go down the path that the evidence pointed me to. Even though I resisted for a long time, and tried to ignore the obvious for even longer, one by one, the problems with all of those claims caught up to me. All the claims of infallibility and inerrancy gave way in the face of unavoidable realities about translation, transcription, and simple human error combined with two millennia of wishful thinking.

Having pored over the U.S. Census, I have gained a great appreciation for the number of mistakes that can crop up, and for how they can throw you wildly off base. It's possible to sift through it all and make sense of some of it - but you have to learn to recognize what to keep and what to throw away. You have to use the tools of logic and be willing to give up on a story that can't be true - no matter how cool you think it would be if it were.

The eighth or ninth time I saw that they claimed to have found Noah's Ark, it occurred to me that they were desperate to do so - enough to ignore the obvious reasons why it hadn't been found yet. The seventh or eighth time I saw the Shroud of Turin go on tour, I looked into the disturbing world of religious relics - and that story is unfolding again with a new corpse! Start peeling away the obvious layers, and they all start to disappear. And I sympathized, because I know how hard it was for me to give up on my family "coat of arms" and the idea of Irish immigrant James 1st bravely fighting in the American Revolution.

I hope no one thinks that I put the Jesus Family Tree together to mock or to stand as "disproof" of anything. (No one can ever "prove" a negative.) But it illustrates the problem of ignoring contradictory pieces of evidence and of not being allowed to follow that evidence where it leads. If you're a believer, I know how scary that can feel. But the burden of proof is on the person making bold claims.

Anchors are the worst thing to throw to someone clinging to something as an Established Fact in an ocean of misinformation. The best thing you can do is to let go of the assumptions weighing you down. Start asking questions, test the answers against each other and start building anew with the evidence at hand. If you're going to build something - maybe a raft? - you need three things:

You need a toolbox .

You need to find a stable location to work.

And you need to be willing to start over.

I did it, eventually - and I didn't have to throw away everything - because there is always a place for poetic imagery.

26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:26-27New International Version (NIV)

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Notes:

1. I am sorry if stating my opinion about the validity of the Mormon faith so plainly causes offense. My intention is not to mock Mormonism here, but to highlight the fact that my younger self was highly motivated by that opinion to embrace a neutral, reason- and evidence-based approach to proving his faith to be the correct one. If it is any comfort, that strategy obviously backfired - as the rest of this essay should demonstrate.

To paraphrase Dennis Miller:

"I think so little of [our differences] that I refuse to treat you like a Fabergé egg. You are part of the human collective. Come, join us in our reindeer games. You too can be poked fun at."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 2

Following the Evidence: Part 2 - Staking Claims, and Proving Names


In "Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" I discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true. 

I remember first taking interest in the family history when I was around 10 years of age and my friend Andrew told me that his mom's cousin was Neil Armstrong. Now, I knew my cousins, Jeff and Aaron, and they were only 2 years older and younger than me, respectively, so they hadn't had a chance to become astronauts. I had a vague notion that my dad's cousin Pat was a teacher. But Andrew had gotten me wondering for the first time about more distant relatives, and the tantalizing idea that they might be somehow famous!

Naturally, I asked all of my relatives if they knew if we were related to anyone "good", and they mostly shrugged and said no. Except for Grandpa Bob, who thought that his grandmother was a Hale - so we were probably related to Nathan Hale. Of course, if you read part 1, you might remember how much time it took for me to track down proof of my connection to the Hale/Hales family. While I eventually did find a lot of leads going back to the mid-1700s, I haven't found a connection to Nathan, and can't really prove much of what I have from before 1840. I am pretty sure my 4th Great grandfather Baker Hale(s) was born in Virginia in 1803; but Nathan Hale was born in 1755 in what is now Connecticut, so if there's a relationship further back, it remains to be discovered.

If you look at the evolution of the U.S. Census you see that the farther back you go, the less "information" each document contains. From 1850 forward, you could see individuals listed by household; prior to that, you saw the name of the Head of the household, and a tally of the other members by age and gender. Prior to the first Census in 1790, you must rely on local tax and land records, church records, family records - all of which recorded transactions or events as they may have happend, and all of which are vulnerable to decay, destruction, or simple loss. It becomes tough to tie fathers to sons (let alone daughters!) if those sons left home before 1850.

All of that makes tracing a line to Nathan that much harder.

I Want to Believe


So, when I set out trying to prove that I was related to someone important, or cool, or at least famous, two things became apparent:

First, I needed to prepare for disappointment. This was an easy lesson, because over the years, it has become much less important to me to find a "famous" connection. The more I dig, the more I learn about the people and places that weren't famous, and the more interesting they become. Some of the wild frontier tales and ties to major historical events, like the Underground Railroad, have been their own reward for me. Just finding out what I have already learned about all of these "ordinary" people has been so revelatory that at this point even proving distant kinship to a key historical figure, while certainly interesting, is no longer the reason I'm doing all of this.

Second, cultivating healthy skepticism is critical to keeping your research honest. When you go into a project like this hoping for a particular result, you can't help but make mistakes. Your bias changes the way you search records, causing you to ignore clues or fill in gaps with pieces that don't quite fit. You tend to favor records that fit the story you've already chosen, rather than letting the records tell you what happened.

When you want to believe a particular fact might be true, it becomes even more important to focus on what you really know - and can prove. In the case of the Hale family, there is still room for possibility - the absence of evidence is not yet evidence of absence - so if I keep looking, I could find that tie to the famous Nathan Hale.

But I have to follow the evidence... not lead it where I want it to go.

Be Careful What You Wish For


I did eventually find a connection to someone famous.

When you think about your family tree for very long, the mathematics can become daunting. The possibility of finding lost relatives increases exponentially every generation further back you go.

There is one of you, you have two (biological) parents, four grandparents, eight "Greats", and 16 "Great-greats" - that's 35 people, not counting any of your siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, or step- and half-siblings/cousins/etc. you might have.  Every generation further back you go doubles the number of great-grandparents you are dealing with, so when I start talking about Baker Hale, my 4th Great-grandfather, I mean that he is one of 64 people in that generation alone without whom I would not exist.

Thomas Clemson (1710-1785) was my 6th-great grandfather - one of 256 people without whom I would not exist. According to a book called "Ancestors of American Presidents", Thomas had (among many other children) two daughters - my 5th-great grandmother, Elizabeth, and his daughter, Mary. Let's save 1,000 words and have a look at who their branch connects us to:

Click to ennixonate.
That's right - my grandmother was a 5th cousin of President Nixon; that makes my children 8th cousins to the Nixon-Eisenhower kids!

Of course, healthy skepticism means that I need to take the time to evaluate the evidence in Mr. Boyd's book. The question you have to ask yourself is, how do your feelings about the person you have this connection to affect your willingness to accept the evidence? A lot of people aren't big fans of Mr. Nixon - but you can't pick your family!

In Which I Finally Begin To Arrive at The Point


All of this storytelling about my own family history was intended to bring us to what I really wanted to talk to you about: the family tree of one Joshua ben Joseph, more commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember how I said I took an interest in all of this family history stuff when I was 10? That was also right around the time when I began to get serious about my church. I went forward in the Southern Baptist tradition and was saved at age 11; at 12, I was terrorizing my classmates, first in my public school, and later in a Christian school, with my passionate zealotry. Everything I did when I was 12, I did zealously, including my family history. And one of those "famous people" I wanted to prove a family connection to was... Jesus.

Okay, I knew even then that it wouldn't be a direct family connection, but I figured that since every generation you go back doubles in number, by the time you go back to that first century the odds would increase that you might find some common ancestor. There are numerous genealogies documented in the Bible, so I assumed I would have to tie my own family to a line of descent from the sons of Noah. And after thousands of years of scholarly analysis of these stories, surely someone had done the homework of collecting evidence, documenting family connections, and filling in the gaps so that I had a chance of doing that... right?

In a word, no.

But there are so very many people out there who claim to have done so, starting with organizations like the Mormon and Catholic Churches, not to mention the vast and varied Jewish traditions. Being a staunch Southern Baptist, I was bound to approach their claims with that healthy skepticism I was talking about earlier. I wanted to believe that it all could be proven, but I wasn't willing to accept their claims at face value, for the simple reason that I didn't consider those groups to be trustworthy. There are also loads of crazy (by my standards at the time) stories about Jesus's brothers and the tales of the Apocrypha to contend with.

So, going into this, we need to set the stage properly.

Setting the Standards, Asking the Question


We've already established some of the rules and boundaries needed to tackle the Big Questions about the possibility of proving an ancestry link to Jesus (or anyone in the Bible, really). In this post and the last one we learned that:

  • Eyewitnesses are unreliable
  • Documents can have mistakes
  • Documents can be missing
  • Family "legends" have a place, with proper context
  • You have to guard against your biases

And so far, we've been dealing with relatively recent, relatively well-documented history.  Stitching together the evidence to support a family tree is hard enough with the documents we have available to us, but that kind of detailed record-keeping was not a universal given even in the New World. Ancient history is obviously much less well-documented.  We can't go into this expecting that we can prove every link in the chain.  But can we find evidence that at least shows that there are chains with a possible connection?

When I research my family, I look at each fact, and decide whether there is evidence to support that fact. I have to frame a question for each fact - "Was Person A the son of Person B or Person C?" or "Did this person who died in 1863 die in the Civil War?" - and if I don't have evidence that proves a particular birth, death, or marriage fact, I have to figure out from what I do already know where I am likely to find that evidence. If there is no proof, for example, that my 4th Great (one of 64!) Grandfather was the son of an Irish immigrant named James, then I have to treat that as a family legend.

And remember - James 1st, if he existed, was only separated from me in history by 200 years. How much more questionable would that family legend be if we were separated by 2,000? We will have to go into this expecting a much broader, and much murkier historical picture to emerge.

The trickiest part of this is framing our questions in a way that can be tested by accessible evidence. How you ask is important, because how you frame it determines what your standards will be. For example, if I frame the question as "Can we prove that James 1st did NOT exist?" the answer is "No" - because it's rare that you can prove a negative under the best of circumstances.

Which means, we still have a lot of work to do before we can even ask the right question.

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game