Tuesday, 29 December 2009

How to be a genealogist

Don’t get me wrong, I love “Who Do You Think You Are?”. It has done a huge amount to promote genealogy as a hobby which, in turn, has generated the market for sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast to make a wealth of historical records online. It has shown millions that genealogy doesn’t have to be about lines of lineage stretching back hundreds of years but can be about what our fathers or grandfathers did in the wars - where and how they lived and what made them who they were.

I just want to check, though… hands up who thinks it’s as easy as it is on WDYTYA?

Anyone? Good.

I’m sure that, if you had the BBC’s resources and budget, you too could arrange for the curators of guilds and museums to greet you with open arms and to just happen to have a stack of records just waiting for you to “discover” them.

No, the reality is much harder, but getting easier all the time.

Genealogy is now one of the world’s most popular, and fastest growing past-times. Consequently, things are changing very fast with more and more books, magazines, TV programmes, websites etc dedicated to the subject, so please bear in mind that what follows may get out of date very quickly.

In the last ten years, the Internet, much as in everyday life, has become the primary tool and source of information for the genealogist... or should that be family historian? Is there a difference? If there is, I’d suggest that a genealogist is concerned with finding names, dates and places going back as far as possible – essentially, generating a pedigree. Meanwhile, the family historian is less concerned with going back a long way than they are concerned with finding out about their ancestors’ lives - where they lived and worked, war records, school days etc. Ultimately though, there is no difference. Most researchers start looking for names and dates and only begin to “flesh out” their stories as it gets harder to find anyone new.

There are three phases in the family history process, and I will describe each in turn. But first, a handy hint: record every search, positive or negative and document every scrap of information and every source. One thing about this hobby is that nothing happens in a hurry. If an ancestor is dead, he will still be dead in six months and scraps of information can take years to grow into a coherent story.

Phase 1 - Memories and shoe-boxes
The single most valuable sources of information are the memories of relatives and they should be exploited for all they are worth, but keep in mind the following:
• Do it now, before the memories are lost forever.
• Remember that names and relationships may be recalled accurately, but dates must be treated with caution
• Don’t expect Aunt Hilda to just tell you all she knows. Write out a series of questions beforehand, preferably ones which lead up to important details. Remember that some of this may be painful to her.
• Names and dates are all very well, but what you really need are anecdotes and photos. Remember to annotate photos straight away.
• Old family books, particularly bibles, can often be a good source of data as can wills, service records, passports and that old shoe box stuffed full of letters.

Phase 2 - Certificates and Censuses
It is important to have documentary proof before you can be certain about a relationship. The best of these are undoubtedly the General Records Office (GRO) certificates:

Birth certificates give name, birth-date, place of birth, parent’s names (including the mother’s maiden name) the father’s occupation and the parent’s address.
Marriage certificates reveal the names, father’s name and occupation for both parties. Also, an address at the time of the wedding.
Death certificates give the name and date plus the age of death and the name of the spouse. These rely on the testimony of whoever registers the death so must be treated with caution.

These certificates do not exist before 1837 when Lord Melbourne’s government introduced legislation under which all births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded and appropriate certificates issued. Copies of the records were kept locally at parish register offices and centrally at the GRO. Most, but not all, births, marriages and deaths were recorded until 1875 when it became an offence not to register an event.

FreeBMD is an ongoing project to index all the GRO registers. This makes it very easy to search for a year, quarter, volume and page reference for the event which can be used to order a copy of the certificate from the PRO online or through Ancestry.

Ten yearly censuses have been taken in the UK from 1801, but the 1841 census was the first to be kept for posterity. It is, however, incomplete and does not always record much more than the name of the head of the household and the number of people living there. Ages are usually rounded up to the nearest five. From 1851 onwards, however, the information is far more complete, giving the names, ages, occupation and place of birth for all people present at an address on the night of the census (usually during the first week in April). Households were visited by census enumerators to complete the census forms on the families’ behalf. This means, however, that we are at the mercy of the enumerators’ handwriting and spelling. The most recent census in the public domain is 1911.

Ancestry and FindMyPast both offer online, searchable indexes to all censuses up to 1901 (only FindMyPast holds the 1911 index) and it is very easy to find ancestors and download an image of the enumerator’s forms. In this respect, the 1911 census is different as it is the actual form, completed in the householder’s hand, which is available. Bear in mind, however, that to add to enumeration errors, there are a considerable number of transcription errors in the indexes.

Phase 3 - Everything Else
So, what happens when you have found all the ancestors born, married or who died after 1837? No more birth certificates, no more census returns and definitely no more personal recollections.

There are many possible sources of information, ranging from prison records, records of those transported to the colonies, lists of Catholics and Huguenots etc. The main sources are likely to be:

International Genealogical Index (IGI)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, aka the Mormons) believe that everyone who ever lived should be baptised as a Mormon, although to avoid controversy they keep to those already dead and not in a position to object. It follows that they spend a lot of time searching for individuals to baptise. They do this by transcribing local parish records into a massive database called the IGI which contains details of about 39 million individuals from England alone. As you might expect, some of the more conservative parishes have refused access to their records and the database is thus incomplete. For example, Essex is believed to be about 33% complete whilst Sussex is nearing 100%. The database can be searched on the Internet at www.familysearch.org. For a baptism or christening, the IGI gives an individual’s name, the date, the parent’s names and the church where the event took place. In the case of a wedding, the parent’s names are replaced by the Spouse’s name. From personal experience, it appears that entries can be found from about 1500 to around 1860. This is a very valuable source and I have found many ancestors from the IGI but it is definitely worth confirming anything with the original parish records.

Parish Records
Parishes were typically villages with a church and larger towns and cities would contain several parishes. Records of British baptisms, marriages and burials have been maintained by law since 1538 but not all clergymen kept proper records in the early years. The early baptism, marriage and burial records were usually jumbled together and some of them were written in Latin but by 1732 all registers were required to be written in English. For the first 200 years it was normal to record only the father’s full name and that of his child in baptismal. Most original parish registers are now available to view in County archives and have been microfiched. Some, but certainly not all, parishes are available online and some are available to buy on CD Rom. From 1598 the clergy had to send a copy of their entire year’s parish register to the local bishop. These copies, known as Bishop’s Transcripts are also available in County archives.

A note of caution is required here. Parish records, and consequently the IGI, do not record births - they record baptisms. Usually, children were baptised within a month of their birth but not always. It was also common to have a communal baptism. As an example, my second great-grandfather was baptised with four of his siblings in 1841, five years after he was born. Remember also that the most parishes were Anglican. Catholic, Jewish and later non-conformists churches collected their own records.

Commercial sites such as Ancestry are competing with each other to put more and more records online, such as military rolls, workhouse records, parish records from the London Metropolitan Archives, phonebooks and passenger records. These are incredibly valuable for fleshing out our ancestors’ lives. They also encourage members to upload their own trees but be aware that some genealogists may not be methodical as they should be, so don’t rely on other people’s research – check it yourself.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Two-Thousands – the decade of change.

So what should we call the first decade of the new century? The “naughties”, the “zeros”? Nope, neither. To me, “naughties” sounds frivolous, somehow nostalgic and I doubt many of us will look back with any fondness. The “zeros” suggests nothing happened and that, my friends, is just not true.

I think we’ll look back at the decade as the decade when everything changed.

On September 11th, 2001, I was in London’s Docklands at an international defence exhibition. Early afternoon, rumours started to spread of the attacks on New York. I talked to subdued colleagues as we stared, G&T in hand, towards Canary Wharf, wondering whether it would be next. Most were dismissive of the implications, but I wasn’t. I remember telling themthat this would change the world.

It did.

It changed our perception of Islam, making one of World’s most peaceful and culturally rich religions synonymous with terrorism. It led directly to the bombings in London and the airline bomb plots which changed the way we travel. It led to the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has made us all terrorists unless we prove otherwise.

It led to the invasion of Afghanistan and gave Bush the excuse to finish what his father couldn’t in Iraq. They tried to convince us of the existence WMDs to justify a regime change that was really about usurping oil resources for US megacorps. They made a liar of a Prime Minister who was desperate to appease Bush, and who then retired when the going got tough; leaving us with a character-less Scot - unelected and unelectable - to preside over the World’s financial crisis.

The tragic murder of Sara Payne and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann made us aware of networks of organised paedophiles but the case of Shannon Matthews in 2008 shocked us and changed the way we think of Britain. The media attention in the deprived estate in Dewsbury gave us a glimpse into the lives and attitudes of Britain’s underclass and how far they would go to sustain their alcohol and drug needs when their benefits were not enough. In 2002, two schoolgirls went missing in Soham, Cambridgeshire. We learnt that they’d been murdered by their school’s caretaker aided by their classroom assistant. The failure of local authorities to use existing procedures to check the killer’s background resulted in legislation that makes us all paedophiles unless we prove otherwise.

It was the decade when we worshipped the cult of celebrities. When we became obsessed with watching freak shows disguised as talent competitions, and gawped at nobodies and has-been celebrities in jungles and padded cells.

Did 9/11 cause the financial crisis? Not directly, but it was one of several butterflies that flapped their wings. With huge funds committed to funding the retaliation for 9/11, unstable oil prices, interest rates at sustained lows around the world and massive western investment pouring into China, the markets struggled to make the returns demanded by their investors. Risks were taken, and more and more elaborate ways of hedging risk were devised until the banks lost control of the risks they were taking. Banks across the world thought they could make more by lending to those who simply couldn’t afford it. They insured and traded risks as commodities until this fragile market began to unwind in the US mortgage market. Within months, the world found itself on the brink of economic collapse. Banks stopped lending to each other and to customers and countries went bankrupt. Businesses collapsed, shops closed and only massive, unprecedented intervention by central banks averted catastrophe, but only by condemning us to years of payback through further deterioration in public services, massive unemployment and high taxation.

But was there any positive change?

Peace came to Northern Ireland as republicans astutely changed their tactics from bombing to democracy. Attitudes changed to the damage we are doing to our planet, and we are gradually changing out ways to conserve and protect. Slowly, too slowly perhaps.

The internet has changed our lives in so many ways. We live our lives online in virtual, social communities. We buy, learn, trade and sustain relationships in the communities and we can all broadcast our opinions, thoughts and minute-by-minute actions to virtual friends.

Historians will look back on the two-thousands – my choice to describe the decade - as the decade when everything changed. Some changes were good, many were bad; but I, for one, am glad they are over.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

On the Future of User Interfaces

What was the name of that movie? You know, the one with Tom Cruise?

“Minority Something”. Report, yes - “Minority Report”. He stood in front of this huge transparent screen and sort of dragged photos and video around like this (waves hand) and then he pulled the corners to make them bigger and then he…..
Spielberg apparently based that iconic sequence on conversations with Microsoft, so perhaps it is no surprise that Hollywood’s one-time virtual reality is now nearly real.

Microsoft recently created “Surface” a table-based computer with a horizontal screen that combines multiple, simultaneous touch inputs, gesture recognition, object and tag recognition and advanced graphics – and, yes, you can drag and resize objects like in the film. Surface is clearly targeted at multi-user interactivity: bars and restaurants for interactive ordering and playing; retail outlets for interactive catalogues and the corporate world for presentations and briefings. Powerpoint presentations will never be the same again.

These applications of Surface are rich in “ooh, that’s clever” moments, impressing with design and the user experience.

Apple’s Iphone brought gesture recognition to the consumer’s pocket and, almost overnight, the ubiquitous desktop and laptop looked slightly old-fashioned. There are, however, millions of personal computer users in the world and almost every one of them uses a keyboard and mouse.

Enter Windows 7 and Apple’s Snow Leopard, which support the growing number of multi-touch devices on the market. Windows 7 brings pinch-to-zoom and tap-and-drag control to monitors, overlays and laptops while Snow Leopard supports similar gestures using mice and track-pads.

But users are comfortable with their software working in a certain way – simple, point-click control of pull-down menus which have almost become standardised. It will take something very special to change that. So, while multi-touch technology is clearly suited to tablet computers and smartphones, it remains to be seen if it can find a use in homes and, especially, offices.

Once again, the latest Iphone is a trail-blazing example of “augmented reality”. Point it at a street scene and the built-in compass will overlay heading and directions on the camera’s image. Soon it, and devices like it, will overlay information about the buildings around you, recognise faces in the street and allow us to interact with our environment in ways we haven’t even thought of.

Nintendo’s Wii brought a form of virtual reality to the console gaming market with advanced gesture control, proving that the sheer immersive joy of realistic interaction – such as swinging a virtual tennis racket - is at least as important to the mass market as sumptuous, high-resolution graphics, a victory for function (and fun) over style.

So what is the future for user interfaces? I rather think that there isn’t just one future. Office computers will continue to develop using desk-bound mice and keyboards as hand-held devices and laptops evolve towards gesture-based control, offering innovative ways to interact with their environment.

Multi-touch screens will become common-place in the home, in the hand and for multi-user devices such as Surface if, and only if, the design is good enough to last beyond those “ooh that’s clever” moments and doesn’t, once the novelty has worn off, interfere with functionality.

Of course, we all hope that the future of user interfaces is much closer to science fiction. We want projected holographic images (“Help me Obi-Wan, you're my only hope”) and virtual-reality headsets (whatever happened to them?). We want computers to react to our eye movements or our thoughts but all this, as well as Tom Cruise’s screen is, for now, still science fiction.

But probably not for long.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Koi Carp Theory of Management

Now that I’m no longer constrained in my corporate straitjacket, I think I can safely publish my “Koi Carp Theory of Management”

No, really. Bear with me.

It came to me in a fish restaurant in Abu Dhabi.

You see, at the time, I had a boss that I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why he was my boss, why those above him thought he was so great and why, frankly, he even had a job. Nice bloke, don’t get me wrong, but jeez…

Anyway, the fish restaurant in question had huge floor-to-ceiling fish tanks full of fish I couldn’t quite place (note how I avoided the obvious pun?). They were quite big, whitish with red discs and little barbels… ah, they were Koi Carp. I realised that I wasn’t used to seeing Koi from the side, only from the top, usually displaying and looking expensive in the hope I might feed them. For thousands of years, Koi have been bred to look good from above with little interest in what they look like to the other fish in the pond.

And that’s when it came to me: my Boss was exactly the same. He was a Koi.

He must have looked great from above, dutifully doing what was expected of him but, from the side, to his contemporaries, he was nothing special, just an ordinary looking fish.

Of course, to those below him – the scum at the bottom of the pond, enviously looking up at the light – all we could see was an arsehole.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Ok, the vexed question of what to do next needs an answer.
I DON'T want to:
- Commute
- Work for anyone that annoys me

I Do want to:
- work on the internet again (I miss it)
- write
- work at home

So, nothing for it then... freelance web copy, blogg, e-commerce adviser

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Day One.

So this is it, or it soon will be.

After 24 years, 4 months and 18 days working for the same company, I've just learnt that my application for "voluntary" redudancy has been accepted. Technically, the voluntary bit is stretching the point a little - I was presented with a fait accompli, so volunteering is my way of retaining control, but the result is, or will be in January, the same.

How do I feel? (thanks for asking)

Well ... odd. Excited, apprehensive

Let's see what happens.