Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Is It Latin? – The Answer

Here’s the answer to the previous puzzle-post with the following Latin-looking verse:

O Sibili, Si ergo
Fortibuses in ero
O Nobili, Themis trux
Cevats inem, Causen dux

This is, of course, not real Latin but a little verse that you can sound out in English.  If you read it out loud, slowly and carefully, you can hear that the verse is actually:

Oh see Billy, see ‘er go.
Forty buses in a row.
Oh no Billy, them is trucks.
See what’s in ‘em?  Cows ‘n ducks.

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Is it Latin?

Here’s a little puzzle to start your day with. The poem below looks like an old Latin inscription. But is it? Or does it say something else? Any guesses?

O Sibili, Si ergo
Fortibuses in ero
O Nobili, Themis trux
Cevats inem, Causen dux

Thanks to my Dad, John Sexton, for having showed me this as a kid.

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One of the most useful software features that has shown up on most web sites these days is something called “look-ahead” technology.

Here’s the idea.  Let’s say you go to the Google web site and you’re looking for a way to hunt down relatives.  You begin typing “find my relatives” into the search box.  But as you type, Google lists a number of phrases that start with the characters that you’ve already typed–things that Google things you might be typing.  So by the time you’ve typed “find my r”, it lists “find my relatives” as one possible thing that you might be searching for.

This is really useful because Google often seems to figure out what you’re going to type, long before you finish typing.  Then you can just click on the phrase that you were going to type and proceed with your search.

How does this work?  Here’s where “look-ahead” comes into play.  Instead of waiting until you finish typing to search its database, Google takes what you’ve already typed and does a quick search in the database.  But instead of searching for web sites, which is what happens when you press the “Google Search” button, it searches for things that other users have typed in the past.

The reason that this is useful is that people tend to search for things that other people have already searched for.  You are definitely not the first person who has entered “find my relatives” into the Google search bar.  So it suggests “find my relatives” as one possible sentence you might be typing.

So this is basically a big time saver for you, since you rarely have to type the entire phrase that you’d thought of into the search bar.  Even better, you might see some phrases that are similar to yours that you had not thought of.

But Google doesn’t just list a bunch of things it thinks you might be typing.  It lists the most common search phrases that match what you’re typing.  What’s more, it orders the list by popularity, with the most common at the top.

This makes reading Google’s list of suggested search phrases very interesting.  By typing a word or two, we can get some insight into what people are searching for.

So, What Are People Searching For?

So now the fun begins.  Let’s enter a handful of interesting phrases into the Google search bar, to see what the most common searches are that start with that phrase.

find my ..

  • find my ip address
  • find my ip
  • find my congressman
  • find my house
  • find my spot

my family ..

  • my family tree
  • my family and other animals
  • myfamilytree.biz
  • myfamily.com
  • my family health portrait

genealogy ..

  • genealogy search
  • genealogy software
  • genealogy sites
  • genealogy free
  • genealogy websites

family photos ..

  • family photos ideas
  • family photos poses
  • family photos on the beach
  • family photos of barack obama
  • family photos what to wear

family tree ..

  • family tree maker
  • family tree template
  • family tree search
  • family tree chart
  • family tree dna

family history ..

  • family history library
  • family history library catalog
  • family history free
  • family history questions
  • family history online

ancestors ..

  • ancestors search
  • ancestors.com
  • ancestors in the attic
  • ancestors definition
  • ancestors myspace

You get the idea.  Google can tell you a lot about what people are searching for and that can be illuminating for certain search phrases.

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Ok, this post isn’t technically related to family history.  But this is something that’s driven me nuts for years—trying to remember the difference between metaphors, similes and analogies.  I end up referring to something as a metaphor when it’s probably an analogy, or use a simile and call it an analogy.  Maybe if I write down the definitions, I’ll be a bit more likely to remember which is which.

Here are the definitions.

metaphora figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance

similea figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared

analogya similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based

Ok, that’s a start, but these definitions don’t really help me much.  They all sound like pretty much the same thing.

Let’s take another stab at defining each of these, and provide an example of each.


A metaphor is a figure of speech in which you say that one thing is another.  By treating two seemingly different things as identical, you illustrate the similarities that we may have not noticed were there.  Here are some examples:

  • Life is a journey
  • I am a rock
  • My wife is a pain in the neck

Notice that I’m not saying “life is a journey because X, Y and Z”.  We just equate the two, which is the power of metaphor—the similarities are inferred.


A simile is a type of metaphor where we use the word like or the word as.  It’s more explicit than a metaphor, and less poetic.  It tells us that two things are similar, rather than inferring that they are, by equating them.  Here are some examples:

  • Free as the wind
  • Talking to him is like talking to a brick wall
  • Her feet are as big as battleships


An analogy is more complex and intricate than either a metaphor or a simile.  It’s a way of comparing two different things by showing a number of ways in which they are similar.  We also logically infer that if the two things are similar in some things, they are similar in others.  Here are some examples:

  • A URL on the web is analogous to a file name on your PC
  • The fight for gay rights is the civil rights movement of the 21st century
  • With that last statement, I am the Jerry Springer of the blogging world

The point here is that we’re not pointing out just one characteristic that is similar between the two things mentioned, but drawing a parallel.  In the case of the URL and the file name, you can think of a number of ways in which the URL is like a file name, e.g. it uniquely identifies what you’re looking for, tells you where to find something, it’s what you feed into a tool to view the item, etc.

The other type of analogy that you will run across is the kind found on many IQ or college prep tests, of the form “A is to B as C is to ?”.  Here are a few examples:

  • Medicine is to Illness as Law is to Anarchy
  • Keyboard is to Blogger as Guitar is to Rock Star
  • Finger is to Eye as Knee is to Crotch

(Hey, I didn’t say that they were going to be good analogies).

So Now You Know

There you have it.  A quick overview of metaphors, similes and analogies.  You no longer have an excuse to forget which is which.  Your mind is full—like a pot of pasta.

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Words are powerful.  A well chosen word can serve to make an entire line of reasoning clear to someone that you’re communicating with.  They can also be incredibly evocative.  A single word can connect the listener with long forgotten memories or tap into deep emotions.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, I found myself really focusing on the individual words, more than the actual message.  This was no ordinary everyday speech, but an inaugural address—the vehicle that a new president uses to project his most central beliefs and values.  So the speech was filled with very powerful words like:  Nation.  People.  Generation.  Work.  Hope.

It occurred to me that maybe I’d be hearing the same words, even had the other candidate won.  The message may well be quite different, but I started thinking that I’d hear many of the same powerful words being used.

I decided to do a little experiment and actually analyze which words President Obama was using in his speech.  There are web pages out there that could do this for me, not only making a list of which words were present in the speech, but keeping track of which words appeared most frequently.

What I created for the speech is known as a “tag cloud”.  You often see them along the side of a blog, depicting the most common topics that the author has blogged about.  The distinctive thing about tag clouds is that the size of the words in the “cloud” is proportional to how many posts are about that topic.  Below is an example—a fragment of the tag cloud from my blog post.

Tag Cloud

You can do a similar sort of thing with any arbitrary chunk of text.  Run it through a piece of software that analyzes the individual words and then generates a tag cloud, with the words used most often showing up the largest.

I couldn’t wait to try this on Obama’s speech.  I quickly found the TagCrowd web site, which lets you input any arbitrary text and generates a tag cloud for you.  Here’s a fragment of the cloud that I got for Obama’s inaugural speech:

Obama's Inaugural

This was incredibly cool.  You can see that the tag cloud is way of depicting the speech visually, with the most used words the most noticeable, because of their size.  This illustrates the particular power of these words in a very compelling way.

I immediately started wondering what some of the other inaugural addresses would look like, when depicted this way.  So I plugged in President Bush’s 2nd inaugural address, from Jan, 2005.  Here’s a chunk of that tag cloud:

Bush Cloud

This was also sort of amazing.  Some of the same words showed up again—common themes between both men.  But there are also some big differences, based on which words are central to the message being delivered.  Somehow, it seemed like just looking at the tag cloud was imparting a true sense of each man and the message being delivered.

I can never really do things in half measures, so I decided to put together a web page that included tag clouds for every single inaugural address—from Washington to Obama.  I also included links back to the full text of each inaugural address.

You can see the end result at: http://www.seans.com/tags

You’ll see that I also added one more very interesting piece of information.  On the main page, where I list each president and their inaugural address(es), I also list the three most common words from that particular address.

This makes for some very interesting reading, just reading the list of presidents, without going to the tag clouds.  Somehow, even with just three words, you can get a sense of the man and the times during which he was speaking.

Here are a few examples:

  • Thomas Jefferson:  government, fellow-citizens, man
  • Abraham Lincoln:  constitution, states, people
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt:  national, people, helped
  • John F. Kennedy:  sides, world, pledge

In the end, this was a fascinating exercise.  It really highlights the raw power of the words being used in these speeches.  Even when we break the speech up into words, the individual words still have great power, as the core concepts and beliefs jump out at us.

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Here’s a modest proposal for Ancestry.com on a little trick that they could use to get new subscribers.  (With all apologies to Johnathan Swift and only a slightly intentional reference to eating your young).

I recently got a short e-mail from a cousin who was interested in starting to do some research into one of her ancestral lines.  (Her father’s line, which I know nothing about, since I’m related to her mother).

I immediately volunteered to do some looking around on ancestry.com to see what I could find.  Of course I’m very conscious of not wanting to cheat ancestry.com out of a potential future customer.  So I wouldn’t plan on making a habit of doing free searches for friends.  But my thinking is that I can find a few snippets for my cousin and then, if she becomes excited enough about what’s out there, she may become a paid subscriber.

But I wondered how ancestry.com thinks about approaching people like my cousin and winning them over as a paying customer.  To start with, a potential customer has to find out about the product.  That’s what all of the advertising is geared towards.  But my cousin wasn’t approaching this because she knew anything about ancestry.com.  She just came to the family member who knew something about researching records online and asked me.  So ancestry.com should be thinking about prospects that they pick up through word-of-mouth, rather than through normal advertising channels.

Once a potential customer knows about ancestry.com as a possible place to go look for information on their ancestors, they should definitely have a chance to try out the service before making any commitments.

I know that ancestry.com offers a free 14-day trial for potential customers.  And my cousin could sign up that way.  But I have a couple of problems with the typical trial membership.

For starters, my cousin would have to enter credit card information, in order to get her 14-day trial membership.  That’s just big enough of a barrier to entry to block quite a few people who might otherwise be interested in quickly exploring what ancestry.com has to offer.  It’s just too much trouble.

Secondly, I’m fairly certain that the trial membership auto-converts into a full membership if you don’t explicitly cancel it.  Ok, right there, I know I won’t recommend it to my cousin.  That sort of marketing technique just smacks too much of typical bait-and-switch schemes.  Granted, canceling is probably pretty easy.  But still, it’s something that the prospect has to remember to do, which means that there is risk involved—risk that they end up paying for a membership that they don’t want.

The whole mission behind the idea of try-before-you-buy is to make the barrier to entry so low that lots of people can try your product, and do so in the easiest manner possible.  You also want to make sure to give them a complete/full product experience, i.e. they should have access to everything that paying members do.

The Proposal

So here’s my thought on this.  How about we make it easier for potential new customers to try out ancestry.com through a referral system?  Here’s how it would work:

  • I decide to refer my cousin, so I click a button in my account and get a new trial account auto-generated, after entering my cousin’s e-mail address
  • Ancestry e-mails the login info to my cousin, who logs in
  • No credit card information is required
  • This subscription does not auto-convert into a payed subscription
  • My cousin automatically has access to my family tree, as well as all databases that I pay for
  • The account/subscription lasts only for 14-days (or for 5 sessions, or whatever)
  • At the end of the trial period
    • My cousin’s account automatically is locked out
    • She automatically gets an e-mail giving her a chance to subscribe “for real”
  • If my cousin does sign up at the end of the trial period
    • She gets a slight discount
    • I get a small kickback, in the form of a discount for next year’s renewal

The bottom line?  A simple piggyback trial subscription mechanism that would make it very easy to refer other family members and grow the ancestry.com community.

How about it, ancestry.com ?

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99 Things Meme

These memes are a little addicting.  In this case, no one tagged me.  I just liked this meme, so I wrote it up for myself.  (And I’m lazy, not tagging anyone else).  So if the mood strikes and you blog, go ahead and pass this one on.  And then post a comment here, linking to your own list.

The 99 Things Meme

Things you’ve already done: bold
Things you want to do: italicize
Things you haven’t done and don’t want to – leave in plain font

1. Started your own blog.
2. Slept under the stars.
3. Played in a band.
4. Visited Hawaii.
5. Watched a meteor shower.
6. Given more than you can afford to charity.
7. Been to Disneyland/world.
8. Climbed a mountain.
9. Held a praying mantis.
10. Sang a solo.
11. Bungee jumped.
12. Visited Paris.
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea.
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch.
15. Adopted a child.
16. Had food poisoning.
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty.
18. Grown your own vegetables.
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France.
20. Slept on an overnight train.
21. Had a pillow fight.
22. Hitch hiked.
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill.
24. Built a snow fort.
25. Held a lamb.
26. Gone skinny dipping.
27. Run a marathon.
28. Ridden a gondola in Venice.
29. Seen a total eclipse.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset.
31. Hit a home run.
32. Been on a cruise.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person.
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors.
35. Seen an Amish community.
36. Taught yourself a new language.
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied.
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person.
39. Gone rock climbing.
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David in person.
41. Sung Karaoke.
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt.
43. Bought a stranger a meal in a restaurant.
44. Visited Africa.
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight.
46. Been transported in an ambulance.
47. Had your portrait painted.
48. Gone deep sea fishing.
49. Seen the Sistine chapel in person.
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkelling.
52. Kissed in the rain.
53. Played in the mud.
54. Gone to a drive-in theatre.
55. Been in a movie.
56. Visited the Great Wall of China.
57. Started a business.
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia.
60. Served at a soup kitchen.
61. Sold Girl Scout cookies.
62. Gone whale watching.
63. Gotten flowers for no reason.
64. Donated blood.
65. Gone sky diving.
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp.
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter.
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy.
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial.
71. Eaten Caviar.
72. Pieced a quilt.
73. Stood in Times Square.
74. Toured the Everglades.
75. Been fired from a job.
76. Seen the Changing of the Guard in London.
77. Broken a bone.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle.
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person.
80. Published a book.
81. Visited the Vatican.
82. Bought a brand new car.
83. Walked in Jerusalem.
84. Had your picture in the newspaper.
85. Read the entire Bible.
86. Visited the White House.
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating.
88. Had chickenpox.
89. Saved someone’s life.
90. Sat on a jury.
91. Met someone famous.
92. Joined a book club.
93. Lost a loved one.
94. Had a baby.
95. Seen the Alamo in person.
96. Swum in the Great Salt Lake.
97. Been involved in a law suit.
98. Owned a cell phone.
99. Been stung by a bee.

Already done – 49
Want to do – 27
Haven’t done, no interest – 23

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Short Form or Long Form?

This will be another unusual post for me—merely a ramble of sorts.  I generally think quite a bit, prior to writing a new blog entry and I try to create something of real value.  This generally means that I write pretty long posts.  It also means that I spend a huge amount of time either researching/preparing the content for the post, or in just writing it and then later editing it.

But as I read other blogs, I notice how many bloggers write regular, or even daily, posts.  As a reader of those blogs, there is something very comforting about hearing from a blogger at regular intervals.  And it doesn’t bother me that many of the posts are things that I’ll quickly skip over.  Eventually they write something that catches my attention in a deeper way and I read that particular post more attentively.

So it’s not true that a blog post has to be 2,000 words long to be of value, or has to be the product of some project that has taken a number of weeks to complete.  I would still like to work on those project and write those posts.  But I think I’ll also try to mix it up with shorter posts that are merely  miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings.  I might even manage to talk myself out of editing and rewriting these shorter posts.

In the end, I guess I have several goals when it comes to blogging.  One is to provide some information, or tools, that are of lasting value to family historians and genealogists.  But also important is my goal to just have a conversation with the genealogical community.  I know that I really appreciate seeing regular posts written by my favorite bloggers.  It makes me feel like I have an ongoing connection with them, whether or not I read every post.  And I’d like to be on the other side of that equation occasionally.  It also matches my real-life personality.  I like to talk.

One final comment before this post becomes an example of irony, as it gets longer and longer.  There is great value in both the long form—huge 2,000 word articles that teach—and the short form—several paragraph posts that lay out a quick set of thoughts.  But there is even value in the shortest form imaginable.  I’m a huge fan of Twitter (www.twitter.com/spsexton) and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see that I “publish” many tiny little thoughts throughout the day.  Twitter enforces a message length of something like 140 characters and I find it quite easy to present a little thought in even so few characters.

So if I have any sort of New Year’s resolution at all (I normally make my resolutions in April, on my birthday), it would be this—to embrace not only the super-short form of Twitter and the super-long form of well-planned blog posts, but to also write some shorter blog posts over the next year.  I look forward to the ongoing conversation on the blog.  And I hope that I’ll also see some of you on Twitter.

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Eight Random Things About Me

I’ve been tagged by Randy Seaver of the Genea-Musings blog, asking me to carry on a meme where I share some facts about myself.  Here are the rules:

  1. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  2. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  3. At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their name.
  4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and to read your blog.

Ok, this seems a pretty simple post to write—no research required, since it’s about me, and no software to write!  I’m going to present my list using a series of photos.

#1 – I Lived in Belgium for 6 Months


I’ve always had a passion for travel and have been lucky enough to have jobs that allowed me to do a lot of travel, both domestic and international.  In 1998, I worked in Leuven, Belgium for 6 months.  It was a phenomenal experience and I fell in love with the city and the Belgian beer.  I also took advantage of my time in Europe and traveled throughout Europe as much as I could.

#2 – I Always Read Three Books at a Time


This one probably smacks just a little bit of OCD.  It’s a long story of how this odd habit came about and why I’m a little bit anal about it.  But the basic concept is that I’m always reading three different books at any given time.  Here are the three that I’m currently reading.

#3 – I Designed and Built My Own Garden Shed


Here’s a not-so-little garden shed that I designed and built over the course of a little over a year.  It’s modeled after an old chicken coop with clerestory windows.  After four years, it’s even started to smell like a farm shed (a mixture of wood, grass clippings and gasoline).

#4 – I Once Hitched a Ride in the Back of an Irish Milk Truck


Okay, I didn’t get a picture of the milk truck that I rode in, so this photo will have to do.  It was 1987 and I was backpacking around Europe for the summer.  I was hiking around out on the West coast of Ireland (Connemara) when a national bus strike went into effect.  I hadn’t intended on hitchhiking while in Ireland, but that was the only alternative.  Luckily, the first guy that came along was a milk truck driver who was more than happy to let me ride with him.  The only drawbacks were a) I had to sit in the back, on the metal floor and b) it took hours to work our way back to the city because of all the stops that he had to make.  It made for a wonderful travel memory, however.

#5 – I Live in the Country


I live in an “exurb” of the Twin Cities, out in farm country.  Here’s the view from my front porch.  This is part of the reason that I actually enjoy mowing my lawn—I have such a great view.

#6 – I’m a Juggler


Here’s a talent that I picked up in college in the 1980s while trying to avoid Physics and Calculus lectures.  I can juggle 5 balls (briefly), 3 clubs, and I can “pass” clubs with other jugglers.  This photo shows me proving to some friends that you really can juggle a flaming tennis ball without burning yourself.  It does require a little fortitude, however.  A couple of beers doesn’t hurt, either.

#7 – I Go on a Yearly Personal Retreat


This one is a little hard to explain in a short space, but I go on a yearly trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior, where I rent a cabin for 3-4 days.  I spend my time reflecting, planning, and writing.  I’ve done this now for the past 14 years and I intend to keep up the habit for many years to come.  The cabin that I stay in is right on the shore, so the setting couldn’t be more beautiful.

#8 – I’ve Climbed Mt. Fuji


They say (the Japanese) that a wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once in his life, but only a fool climbs it twice.  I spent a few days in Japan at the tail end of a business trip a number of years ago and Mt. Fuji was at the top of my list for things to see.  I was also eager, of course, to prove myself a wise man, so I decided to do the climb to the top.  It was one of the most physically demanding things that I’ve done, but well worth the effort.  I climbed up alone, but met some fellow travelers at the top and made the descent with them.  Halfway down, we heard someone yelling for help a hundred yards or so off the trail and we ended up “rescuing” a woman who had ventured off the trail and then slipped and twisted her ankle.  Maybe she was on her second climb.  :O)

Passing It On

Thanks again Randy for the tag and the chance to share some miscellaneous ramblings.  Here are eight bloggers whose posts I enjoy reading and that I in turn tag with the Eight Random Things About Me meme:

Lisa Louise Cooke of the Genealogy Gems blog & podcast
Dear Myrtle of the Dear Myrtle blog & podcast
Tim Agazio of the Genealogy Reviews Online blog
Lorine of the Olive Tree Genealogy blog
The Footnote Maven of the Shades of the Departed blog
George Geder of the Genealogy-Photography-Restoration blog
Teri of the Old Photos and Genealogy blog
Maureen Taylor of the Photo Detective blog

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Here’s the genealogical equivalent to the age-old “boxers or briefs” question—when it comes to family history, does your passion lie with finding ancestors, or finding descendants?  Both pursuits have their own unique rewards and particular challenges.

Many people get hooked on family history as they try to flesh out a chart of their direct ancestors.  As kids, we fill in grandparents, ask about great-grandparents and quickly fill in the first few levels of the basic ancestry charts.  It’s a huge thrill to completely fill in that one-page, five-generation chart.

For people who are driven by the search for ancestors, the ultimate goal is often to identify and record as many direct ancestors as possible and to go back as far as possible.  We’ll spend months banging on a particular brick wall until we eventually uncover a new ancestor, or add specific dates and places where we previously only had a name.

Or we might be driven more by the search for descendants.  We pick one of our ancestral families, often starting with our own surname, and we do our best to fill in a complete tree of descendants, starting as far back as possible.

For descendants-focused family historians, the ultimate goal is to create a tree that contains absolutely every descendant of a particular family.  We get energized by reconnecting with long-lost cousins and by fleshing out branches of the family that we didn’t know anything about.

Me, I’m more of a descendants-guy than an ancestors-guy.  This is probably because I come from a large family (my Sexton line) that has always been close and because we are such good storytellers.  I also love the idea of putting an ancestor in some sort of historical context, by learning as much as possible about their immediate family.

Both quests—ancestors or descendants—are never-ending.  We can always keep pushing the search for ancestors, as we go back farther and farther.  And, building a list of descendants, there are always new babies being born and cousins growing up and getting married.

Whichever aspect we tend to focus on, there is a lot of benefit in switching occasionally between ancestors-focused and descendants-focused.  Learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and family can often help us push our records even further back.  And we can often learn more about a tree of descendants by finding out more about the ancestors on both sides of the family.

In reality, most of us are a mixture of both types of family historian.  Rare is the completely clean .GED file that goes in one direction only.  We often start out by exploring direct ancestors, but eventually get interested in the families that these ancestors came from.  So we start “going sideways”, learning as much as we can about the entire family.

But when it comes down to it, if I had to answer the ancestors-or-descendants question directly, I’d have to say—descendants.  How about you?

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