Genealogy in the Internet Age

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Hello French Fries!

footballI hope you all had a great New Years. Those of you know me know that I am that rare breed of techie who actually loves sports. This weekend was the last weekend of the NFL season, and while we are inching closer and closer to the 2020’s, the NFL playoffs are shaping up to have a very 90’s feel to it. The Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, and Minnesota Vikings, all 90’s playoff mainstays, made it this year after most of those franchises spent years in the wilderness. Furthermore, the Raiders are hiring Jon Gruden, and played an ‘away’ game in a soccer stadium in Los Angeles against the not-so-home-team Chargers (they are not Los Angeles’ team, so I refuse to call them the LA Chargers). I was watching that game, and for a 27000 seat stadium that has not sold out once this whole season, there was an official attendance of 25,430 fans. About 22,000 of those in attendance were Raiders fans. Hopefully the Chargers make the smart and reasonable decision, eat their pride, tuck tail, and limp back to San Diego where they belong. On the bright side, the icing on the football New Years weekend cake was that Rose Bowl game yesterday. Boy was that a seesaw back and forth shoot-out of an instant classic where my hometown Georgia Bulldogs beat the Oklahoma Sooners in double overtime. This was a great New Years Weekend for football lovers like myself.


Now for my rant of the day: The Internet age has been a revolution for knowledge and data acquisition. It has allowed us to collate data, increase knowledge, and streamlined research. One of the ways that the past 30 years of digitizing and publishing info on the web has affected the average mom and pop user is through ancestry research, or Genealogy. Genealogy, it has been said, is the second most popular web-based industry after pornography, and with good reason. In the 27 years the internet has been accessible by the public, the field of genealogy has exploded and became accessible to nearly everyone with a network connection, whereas it was an expensive venture restricted to those with time and money before the internet age.

rootsIn 1976, Alex Haley published a fictionalized novel based on the real history of his family tree. This novel, which along with ‘Malcom X‘ and ‘Queen‘ is considered to be Mr. Haley’s signature novel. It would revolutionize and popularize the field of genealogy, and is a must read for anybody interested in the fabric of the American project and identity. His novel was originally called ‘The Saga of the American Family’, but was in later additions affixed the simple title of ‘Roots‘. This novel was then adapted into a miniseries in 1978 which is still considered one of the most influential and seminal pieces of television production to ever grace the small screen. An unintended consequence of this miniseries was that it inspired legions of Americans to learn about their ancestry and where they came from.

researchJust like that, many amateur genealogists were born. But while the popularity of Genealogy arose in the late 1970s, the internet would not be publicly accessible and available until the 1990’s. That meant that, for over a decade, people had to trace their roots the old fashioned investigative way. Now, I’m not old enough to have experience with pre-internet research, but from what I have understood from my grandmother, her sister (on my mother’s side) and my aunt (on my father’s side) is that it is a lot of work. They had to make phone calls, travel all over to various depositories, investigate and collect documents and photographs, be willing to investigate possible leads at expense of time and money with the risk of being wrong or following a dead end. It seems like it was such a hassle back in the stone age. Hence, while the concept of tracing one’s roots became popular, it was a time and resource consuming process, and was not very accessible to those who didn’t have the energy or resources to commit.

In 1989, the Internet was invented by CERN, and grew to popularity in the 1990s. While today, we look back at the 1990s as a hilariously trope misunderstanding of the power of a project in it’s infancy, it allowed more and more people to be able to research their family history without needing to travel as far and wide. I remember when I was 11 or 12 (so in 1999 or 2000) taking a genealogy class with my dad where we ended up learning a lot about databases structures and interactions, how to write a query, and how to find a site and it’s database. The message there is that genealogy research on the internet had become popular enough by the end of the 90’s that they taught classes and had full databases dedicated to familial research on the computer.

aolToday, it’s easier than ever to conduct this research. In the past sixth months, I have become interested in tracing my family’s history, and there are many of sites that anyone can utilize to investigate their family. Several free sites offer a pretty great starting point, while subscription sites offer a more in depth process and a bit of hand holding as well. I find it fascinating the amount of resources that in the past couple years have been digitized and made available to the public via the internet. While the federal government doesn’t release census data until 72 years after Census Day, many state and local governments have kept detailed records, as well as foreign governments, religious institutions, military organizations, customs and immigration officials, shipping companies, etc. For example, the Mormon church has very detailed and in depth records on the family trees of all of their members, past and present, and have in recent years gone to great lengths to digitize and make accessible those records through their Family Search platform. Using myself as an example, while conducting my research on, I was able to trace my mother’s family to Latvia, France and Switzerland starting with the people I already know, like my grandparents, my great aunt, aunts, cousins, parents, etc. By asking my spry young 89 year old grandmother, I was able to learn that she was born in the Upper West side of Manhattan, as well as learn her parents and grandparents names, which established a great starting point. Then following the older Census records which are available in databases online and include dates of immigration as well as port of entry (in my case Baltimore), I was able to narrow my queries which pointed me to a ship name and shipping records. I was able to determine the port of embarkation, as well as hometowns, and was then able to go back several generations thanks to French census records, Swiss tax records and Synagogue tithing records from Riga. Similarly, on my dad’s side, I was able to trace his family through census, immigration and shipping data back to Hungary, where my ancestors were active in the Hungarian military, so I was able to learn about several generations of Hungarian ancestors courtesy of Hungarian military muster and pension roles. This allowed me to track down a copy of of my Great Great grandfather’s birth certificate from his hometown and now I’m debating using that certificate to gain Hungarian citizenship.

So, why did I go into all that trouble to explain my experience with genealogy? I want to make the point that in the internet age, it’s one of the best and most interesting ways to learn many valuable Computer Science skills like querying databases, how to properly construct a search query, how to research and compile data into your own database, how to properly use verifiable data to draw conclusions, and the always valued skill of problem solving and thinking backwards. These are necessary and valuable skills that if someone wanted to go into app development, business technology, cyber security, and many other fields of IT, they will have to know. Consequently, I personally feel that genealogy should be something that is offered in schools or adult learning programs. If you, my dear reader, wanted to learn more about computer science, as well as yourself, you should absolutely consider pursuing genealogy. Furthermore, if you have young children, like my dad did when he took me to that genealogy class at the turn of the millennium, it’s a great and fun bonding activity that will teach you both something new and useful in an entertaining and enlightening way.

As an aside, there’s another scientific aspect of genealogy that is becoming more popular these days as well. While the computer science aspects of genealogy have caught up to the modern age, so to have the biological applications. DNA testing has become popular and affordable for those interested in their ancestry, and it’s popularity is rising. There are many benefits of DNA testing as well, because they can tell you a lot about health risks to which you might be genetically predisposed. I know that over the weekend, my aunt and uncle took a swab that they are sending to the lab to process. While exciting and paralleled with internet based genealogy, it is not something that is really computer science based, so I’m not going to go into much detail about that, but if you do decide to learn database skills via genealogy, it’s something to consider, and can even be life changing as it was for my friend who published her experiences with DNA testing recently.


searchNow for my tech tip of the day: Despite the popularity of search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo, many people do not know that there are ways to construct a search query that really help focus the results you will get. There are terms and punctuations, called Booleans, that modify your query and tell search engines and databases how to conduct the query. Below are the most useful Booleans, what they do and how to use them.

1.) AND

AND tells the search engine or database that your query is seeking to include multiple terms. As a result, the query will not return results that do not include both terms, and is a great way cutting out the results that only includes one or the other while giving you results that only include both terms.

Example: instead of searching for Earth Wind Fire, search for Earth AND Wind AND Fire and you will get only results that include all 3 terms of Earth, Wind and Fire.

2.) OR

OR tells the search engine or database that your query is seeking at least one or more of the terms listed. It is not an either/or command, but will return any result that includes one of the mentioned terms, thus most often increasing the quantity of returned results.

Example: Instead of searching for Denver Broncos, search for Denver OR Broncos, and you will get back any result that includes Denver, any result that includes Broncos, and any result that includes Denver Broncos.

3.) NOT

NOT tells the search engine or database to exclude a term. This will limit the results returned by a query to results that do not include the specified term.

Example: Instead of searching for Washington state, search Washington NOT DC. This will limit results to results that include Washington but do not include DC.

4.) Asterisks

Asterisks (displayed with the symbol *) are used in database queries to denote a search for any results based on a root word. Please note that this only works in database queries, but will not work in search engine queries.

Example: If you search anthro*, your query will return any result including the root anthro, such as anthropology, anthropomorphic, anthropocentric, philanthropist, lycanthropist, etc.

5.) Parenthesis

Parenthesis, denoted with the symbols of ( ) tell the search engine or database to execute an OR query on all terms contained within.

Example: Instead of searching for Queens OR of OR the OR Stone OR Age, structure your query as (Queens of the Stone Age)

6.) Quotation Marks

Quotation marks, denoted with the symbols ” ” tell the search engine or database to execute a query on an exact phrase.

Example: Instead of searching for the second gunman on the grassy knoll, search for “Second gunman on the grassy knoll” to return only the results which include the exact phrase: Second gunman on the grassy knoll.


Well folks, I hope your 2018 starts out with a bang. If your New Years resolution is to become more proficient in a skill, I hope my post encourages you to learn how to build and query databases, and if you do indeed decide to learn these skills, genealogy is a great and fun way to start. If you are brand new to database design, SQL and MongoDB are great and useful languages to learn. Until next time…

…the ketchup is in the sauce.


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