The Perils of Genealogy: Part Four

The Tale Wags the Dog

Stay tuned…there might be a Part Four someday,” I said as I closed my last epistle on the topic of genealogy back in March of 2015. My never-ending quest for family history has moved onward in spurts over the past four years.  Back then, I had recently been dabbling in the results of my DNA test results. My expectations at that time were fairly low and I was considering DNA testing to be sort of a novelty. It was a curiosity at first for people who had invested so much time in their paper research. Many of them had traced family lines back through the centuries and they were well informed on their ethnic origins. Or so they thought.


Somewhere along the way, DNA testing took off like a rocket with several different companies pulling in the lion’s share of the market. These days, it is common to have friends who have had DNA tests done and result returned. Some choose to talk about it and some choose to keep it quiet. Some of that is because they may not really know what the report is telling them. The companies use different testing algorithms and procedures and will offer different interpretations of the results. If a set of identical twins are tested by two different companies, they will get different results simply because the companies work differently.

It is a huge market and there is a great deal of money to be made. I tested with mostly to get my ancestry information out of curiosity but that company provides genetic health reports based on one’s genetic makeup. Until I started reading the reports, I never heard of most of those obscure conditions (obscure unless you are afflicted). There are a few I’ve heard of. I just learned that I’m at little or no risk of Familial Mediterranean Fever. I know my risk level for macular degeneration and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In most cases, they can’t totally rule out all risk because the research typically doesn’t search out all genetic markers and we also must understand that genetic research is still advancing, and new markers might be discovered in the future.

The most recent twist in the health-related genetic testing research is the partnering of companies like with “Big Pharma” with tremendous profits for both sides. Drug companies would love to access genetic material as a means of developing cures or treatments for various diseases. The genetic testing companies protect individual privacy (we are told) but offer access to the DNA details so drug companies can identify disease markers and the genetics of numbers. Among other things, Big Pharma would want to know how many people have a certain risk and whether it is in their shareholders’ interests to chase a remedy if there are so few with the conditions. There is money to be made if they are selective in their work efforts.

Another recent twist is the use of DNA databanks (GEDmatch, for example) for criminal investigations. These databanks are a treasure trove for cold cases or current crime investigations. If an unknown perpetrator leaves DNA evidence at the scene of the crime, that DNA can be processed by one of the DNA companies to point to close relatives of the perpetrator who are registered with that company. Gedmatch is a good source for this because people who are tested by other companies can upload their DNA results for free to Gedmatch and use various research tools or look for DNA cousins from multiple testing sources. If your first cousin commits a crime and there is DNA evidence left behind you might be an unwitting tool in the investigation if your DNA is on file. This has happened a couple times (that became public) but might be more common in the future.  DNA deposited with one of these companies is supposed to be kept secure and private but the exception seems to be criminal investigations. GEDmatch issued the following statement on their web page:

April 28, 2018   While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded. Users may delete their registration/profile and associated DNA and GEDCOM resources. Instructions are available.

I guess removing one’s DNA from the databank would make it invisible in such investigations, but I’m not fully convinced that it is totally gone. Years ago, I worked in Criminal Justice information systems and we were directed to expunge records on some cases but there was always a bit of a shadow left behind on back-up tapes and such. Perhaps modern technology has advanced to totally remove any record. We are supposed to believe that, anyway.

And what about identical twins? If you have an evil twin committing crimes and leaving DNA evidence, will you get hammered if law enforcement finds your DNA in a databank? Identical twins have (nearly?) identical DNA. I’ve seen some reports that say there are ways to find differences but then I’ll find something that says otherwise.  Identical twins are the result of a split fertilized egg developing as two separate individuals. I don’t know where the differences in DNA develop.

I personally think that violent criminals need to be caught. If I have a DNA cousin running around raping and pillaging and hurting victims, my DNA might be the clue to stop it, but I have mixed feelings about being unwittingly dragged into the investigation. Would I also have to be called as a witness to explain how my DNA came to be part of the databank? I hope not.

Another issue is children who are adopted finding their birth families. I have a dozen or more adoptees in my DNA cousin list (out of several thousand). I have tried to work with a couple adoptees, but we have not moved any closer to establishing an identifiable link. These adoptees are usually fourth cousins or more distant and I have dozens or hundreds of fourth or fifth cousins…most I have never heard of.  Sometimes, lightning strikes and the adoptee finds a close DNA relative and then can work out the details. Sometimes the birthparent finds the adoptee directly through a DNA cousin list.  I know of two recent occurrences where the birthparents initiated the contact. In one case, the adoptee was surprised because they didn’t know they were adopted. That opened several family issues and some real repercussions. Many people in the adoptive family kept the secret for decades – took it to the grave in some cases.  The other situation has been a bit awkward because the adoptee’s half-siblings went to the same school and lived just a short distance away. They came into contact from time to time but had no idea they were related.

In an extreme case, a man who contributed to a sperm bank decided to have his DNA tested for health and ancestry purposes. He apparently wasn’t thinking about the possible dozens of children that he passed his DNA to without his actual participation or knowledge. He has discovered that he has multiple sons and daughters and they have a mystery parent that maybe mom needs to talk about. Awkward, no?  In cases where the contributor didn’t get his own DNA tested, his natural offspring or even his cousins who did are scratching their heads trying to figure out how they are related to these many strangers…half siblings or cousins they never heard of.

DNA Result Confusion

I’m seeing an increased number of comments on various genealogy web forums of people being disappointed in their results.  There are more people getting tested and the results don’t synch with what Mom and Dad said.  I think the issue partially lies in the randomness of DNA transmission from one generation to another and then to another, and so on. My report showed that I have some Danish DNA specks (says 23andme) but I have no recent Danish ancestry.  Through paper research, I found one woman who was born in Denmark in the early 1600s and moved to the Netherlands where she married and had children who later migrated to New Netherlands and settled in the Hudson Valley. That is probably seven generations or more in the past and there is almost no reason to expect that DNA to make it through the generations to me. I made up my mind that the randomness caused a small amount of DNA to tumble down through the generations to find me. My daughter doesn’t have any Danish DNA so it stopped with me. I was the end of the line, but I had something of a template in my mind of where “my people” came from.

As soon as I got comfortable with my explanation, that Danish DNA disappeared when 23andme updated their report. These companies will update reports as more people are tested or they gain access to another DNA source. In my case, my Danish and Balkan DNA traces disappeared and were replaced by Portuguese and Spanish DNA. I have no clue where that came from and no ancestry that leads back to the Iberian Peninsula. I’m having a hard time rationalizing that reported finding. I have a bunch of remote ancestors from the Netherlands and Spain, under the Hapsburgs, occupied the Netherlands in the 1500s so some Iberian DNA might have crept into the family tree back in those dark days. Who knows?

My recent update stirred up my DNA pot quite a bit. The report became more precise and now points to the actual locales or provinces where my ancestors likely lived. The Eastern European DNA that I thought was most likely from the Baltic coast of Poland near Gdansk is really from Warsaw and provinces adjacent to modern-day Ukraine. I am now more German and French than Irish and British. I know what German and French provinces my ancestors came from and some of that makes sense, but some don’t. My more precise Irish report closely resembles what I already know. My precise British report is all over the map but might make some sense – I don’t have much information on my English ancestors because they are very ancient and go back to the Plantagenets and before and don’t make up a large branch of my tree.

As an “owner” of one’s DNA data, it is possible to submit the raw data to other companies and get a second or third opinion on ancestral origins. I did that with Myheritage and with GEDmatch. Different companies use different methods and have drawn up the map of the world in different ways. Don’t expect the reports from different companies to be the same across the different methodologies. Myheritage provided an ancestry report that was laughable and made no sense at all. They also assigned something like 4,000 DNA relatives but the bulk of those was a very low likelihood of being a real connection. I did find a couple close cousins but also many “cousins” from Finland. GEDmatch goes off in a different direction and offers so many ways to slice and dice your results that you can mess with the tools until you find something that “fits” what you expect. You will have another list of hundreds of DNA relatives there.

This past year my daughter wanted to get a second test so we both tested with Ancestry. The results were quite close to what we expected them to be. Perhaps the closest match. Ancestry also has a huge databank of genealogical research and is a major repository of family trees. The DNA cousins they identify will often have a family tree that helps track the connection.

An interesting twist to the DNA search popularity is the rise of specialized cousin matching sites (on Facebook). I joined one site for Ireland and another for County Kerry and County Cork. These Facebook sites and the entire concept is tied to the DNA data on file at GEDmatch. The sites have a matching tool that mines the huge GEDmatch data collection that you supply to the Facebook site and finds other people searching the same geographic area to find close matches People only join the Facebook site if they are searching in that specific region. That information is not available from GEDmatch alone.

All this DNA information and the various reports are interesting but I’m hard-pressed to point to any singular genealogical breakthrough that came out of it. It is helpful to know some of the health information. The field is still new and changing as more people are tested so one’s ancestry is still a moving target. Things are improving but not exactly stabilized yet and the multitude of companies adds some confusion. There is no standardization. The unintended consequences of testing regarding the privacy and security of the data might keep people from testing in the first place.

Back to Basics with a Boost

I keep plugging away at the basic research and I’m making more progress that way than I am with DNA test results. I have discovered that the thousands of DNA cousins I have access to are a valuable tool for giving hints and pointers for basic research. I have 150 “cousins” who report the surname “Foley” in their ancestry surnames or in their attached family trees. I have yet to find an ancestor with that surname, but I’ll bet that there is one out there waiting to be found. The same is true with maybe a dozen other names. In some instances, you can search the cousin list by a location or region and find a cluster of “cousins” with family tree ancestors that come from a certain place. That is helpful and is tied to DNA-based relationships.

I subscribed to Ancestry in order to use their resource collection. Years ago, we had to go to libraries or look at borrowed microfilm or microfiche at the local LDS facility. Now much of that, plus a lot more, is available online.  Ancestry is one of several and just happens to be the one I use. The others are probably much the same. Family Search is a free site managed by the LDS church and it has census records and other basic information. There is an Irish genealogical website that has parish records. Other countries have similar archive sites, but the language problem will slow people down unless they can translate on the fly.

I recently found a probate record with a will that identifies my ancestor as an heir. That link took me back through a bunch of New England families and generations to the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. My distant Pilgrim ancestor, a little girl at the time, was the first female to step off the ship at Plymouth Rock. Hold your applause because I don’t need it – that little fact and a couple dollars will get me a small coffee at Starbucks.

There are a few helpful newspaper archives available online and I have been successful in finding information on several family lines. My great uncles were, indeed, gang members and thugs in the Irish gangs of St. Louis. They would assault people on the street and were political enforcers who would keep people from voting if they were not going to vote the “right way”.  One newspaper discovery provided an important confirmation of a relationship among four families in three different communities. They all came to one grandchild’s baptism and the newspaper recorded the occasion and the relationships.  The only problem was that the newspaper (from Gasconade County, Missouri) was in German and used an old German Fraktur type font. It took me a day to translate it and even then, I didn’t get all of it right until I had an expert look at it.

Doing Ancestry searches on specific people provides details of their life but also reveals other people who are searching for the same family. Trolling through these related family trees will sometimes yield a helpful clue but many times it can be wrong. My advice is that if you find a glaring mistake in somebody else’s family tree to keep it to yourself unless you want your head cut off. I learned that lesson the hard way but escaped with my head.  Always be aware that these family trees are a work in progress and subject to revision. Look at the clues but do your own research to confirm the correctness of the information.

For the most part, this is only a hobby and people need to keep it in perspective. The DNA testing angle is an interesting wrinkle, but it has its shortcomings. There are people who are deeply disappointed in the results. Maybe Grampa always said he was an Indian but (uh-oh) it doesn’t show up in the report. Chances are that Grampa wasn’t an Indian. Those NPEs (Non-Parental Events) also pop up and cause family heartburn sometimes.  Basic, old fashioned genealogical research is also burdened with pitfalls and myths about Indians or whatever. I have a line that supposedly goes back through England to Normandy (with a convenient side branch to Charlemagne) and then to Vikings and finally to a mythical fifth-century Viking Sea King. I can imagine him standing on the prow of his ship guiding a small fleet toward land to raid some unsuspecting little coastal village.  That’s a fun story to tell but that’s all it is.  Meanwhile, I also found ancestors who were investors bankrolling the English slave trade. That kind of story is not so much fun, and will sometimes quietly disappear.  Unfortunately, we can’t pick our ancestors.


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Found Objects

I found myself walking along the sea.
We are all part sea water and perhaps
I’m on a pilgrimage to the call of the tides.


Living so far away from the ocean, the
beach is unfamiliar and holds secrets.
The water is cold. The sand is soft.


Landlocked, I see the beach and the ocean
with different eyes. I lock away the smallest details.
It could be years before I return — or never.


That’s probably me with my head looking down.
That’s how I walk on a beach. Or I scan the horizon.
I see a few others my age doing much the same.

The gulls call out. They gather and squabble.
The shorebirds taunt the spent waves.
A lone jogger passes by without a word.

This sand is decorated with polished stones.
Washed by each gentle wave, they shine
and leave patterns from the receding flow.

Sand Dollars are plentiful — maybe half dollars.
They are small and lie flat, awaiting discovery
among the rivulets and tracks in the sand.

I find things that others may not see.
And once again, on this brisk December day,
I found myself walking along the sea.


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Cranberry Redemption

     I have a confession to make. I’ve never been a fan of cranberry stuff at Thanksgiving – not sauce, relish, whatever. It seemed like some sort of Holy obligation — I had to eat some because of the sacred tradition.  My mom always opened a can and dumped it on a plate like some sort of  gelatinous cylinder…festive, flavorful, and to me, kind of industrial looking. It would be passed around the table like communion and folks would take a spoonful and deposit it on the side of their plate but not let it touch any of the other food…it was something apart.
     Now there are many ways to prepare cranberries and my mom experimented with different recipes but she had her hands full with everything else. We knew that it was best to stay out of the kitchen. I recall one year when there were flames roaring out of the oven and my mom and my aunt were franticly throwing stuff in the oven to put out the turkey. Another year the turkey lurched out of the oven and bounced across the floor. She picked it up and crammed it back in the oven and the look on her face said…”I dare you to say anything…it will be the last thing you ever say.”  So the little plate with the cranberry cylinder was fine.
     The cranberry plant has an odd life. It is sort of a vine-like shrub   that lives in a sandy, wet bog in rather cold climates — a very acidic environment. The common North American version (Vaccinium Macrocarpon) is somewhat different from the European variety but I have no idea what that difference is. We have several varieties or species of cranberries that have some differences in growing requirements or berry color but Vaccinium Macrocarpon is the one that seems to be widely cultivated. The Indians loved cranberries and probably introduced them to the hungry Pilgrims. I suspect you have seen the commercials with the two guys standing hip deep in a pond extolling the wonders of cranberries. The berries float so the farmers flood the bogs with enough water to float the berries above the submerged plants and then harvest the floating berries. The bogs are then drained after the harvest and the plants get ready for next Thanksgiving.
     As I said, I’m not a fan of Thanksgiving cranberry stuff. I generally like the flavor of cranberry juice and I like dried cranberries. There are lots of cranberry relish recipes all over the internet. The recipes seem almost like a desperate attempt to make something out of cranberries. Some have nuts, some have a mixture of other fruit, some have lemon peel, some attempt to replicate the same stuff that comes out of the can. None of the pictures look like anything I would want to eat much of. A chopped up cranberry mixed with other things that I can’t identify is not very inviting. My mom’s experiments with real cranberries didn’t seem to be an improvement over the convenience of opening a can while the smoke poured out of the oven.
     My days of big Thanksgiving dinners are behind me. I live 1,000 miles from most of my relatives so it is just me and my daughter  — who lives a short distance away —  conjuring up some sort of plan for the holiday. Neither one of us want a great deal of leftovers so we keep it small. Last year we decided to forego cooking all together and made reservations at a local restaurant for the whole parade of traditional Thanksgiving  delicacies…including cranberry relish. Even in this situation, the cranberry concoction was served up in it’s own little Holy sepulcher …not part of the main attraction.  It was of the chopped or minced variety…not the semi-transparent gelatinous form. I pondered it for a minute or so. My plate was full of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing (all drenched with turkey gravy) and green beans and candied sweet potatoes plus a basket of warm bread. That little dish of red stuff peered back at me…”Try me” it said, almost winking.  This seemed like too public a place to partake of the cranberry sacrament. Well…nobody was looking…I made a run for it and discreetly took a sample….and behold(!), I saw that it was good!  I tried some more…I was not deceived. It was quite good…very good.  It was clearly some sort of marriage of cranberry and orange marmalade.  Maybe I’ve been deprived all these years but I never considered those two flavors working well together. We enjoyed our dinner. My daughter also enjoyed the cranberries which I considered a good sign….it wasn’t just me. Perhaps the spell has been broken — we have reached cranberry redemption!  Shout Hallelujah!!!
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2018 Architectural Tour: Taos — New Mexico Architectural Foundation

It all begins on a fall Friday afternoon. The weekend is chock-full of Taos sites for the soul. Registration includes meals and site entry fees for the Saturday and Sunday tours. If you’re unable to join us Friday, we look forward to seeing you first thing on Saturday morning at Hacienda de los Martinez. 2018 […]

via 2018 Architectural Tour: Taos — New Mexico Architectural Foundation

The Edge of Summer

In Perseids’ wake 
the edge of summer first looms,
clad in August’s haze.

Thoughts of summer sports
– games lost and won, and picnics,
and ev’ning sunsets.

The school desk awaits
as reluctant minds set forth
on another quest.

Basking as reptiles,
our last fling, we find ourselves,
at summer’s sweet edge.




Carlos Rey

I’m always amazed at those slabs of ancient
tree trunks that show how time passes.
A seed fell and sprouted and took root.
Maybe in 1492 or 1215.
There was a drought. There was a fire.
There were good years and bad.

My ancient Juniper tree lives on at the back
of a my mostly unused piece of land.
Its age gives it a certain distinction.
How old can it be?
I named the tree Carlos Rey for it surely
once belonged to the King of Spain.

These trees grow slowly in the high desert.
They experience things that we never notice.
Once they get a good start, a toehold, they
can go on for centuries.
Carlos Rey was twig when Coronado and
the Franciscans camped just down the hill.

Other old trees nearby show old jagged scars;
ax marks where a shepherd or soldier
stole a branch for firewood or shelter.
Even the scars are ancient.
Carlos Rey went unnoticed and unscathed.
Endurance and survival are the keys.

Carlos has seen good years and bad years.
I think we must be in what will be known
as bad years when some future scientist
ponders our age – our rings.
I see no small Junipers – only ancient ones.
The climate seems angry and uncooperative.

Life is precious. It has a memory to share.
There’s a man in Sussex who counts the rings
of a Stradavari or a Montagnana or
a Matteo Groffiller.
With years of practice, and in the right hands,
the old tree rings sing with the voice of angels.


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The FOS and DST

To Whom It May Concern:

As a cat owner, if that term can be used, I have become aware of a certain aspect of the Feline Operating System (FOS) that seems in need of an upgrade or at least a patch. The FOS has five main operating modes: Exploration, Observation, Expectation, Anticipation, and Procreation. For the sake of household tranquility, the Procreation module has been disabled in many domestic house cats but remains functional in those residing in feral status. Although there may be some hand-wringing and consternation about certain aspects of the Procreation module, that has nothing to do with my current letter of concern to you. There is also a sleeping or resting status that has some bearing on the other FOS modules and my predicament.

There seems to be at least a sequential hierarchy in the FOS based on my observations.

The Exploration module seems to be the first to kick in whenever a cat is introduced into a new household. This sometimes takes several days and during that time the cat seems to be largely invisible. In fact, the cat is not invisible but selects a particular hiding spot, a vantage point for exploration of the premises when the resident human or humans are not awake. I know this because the dish of cat food is empty, there is evidence left in the litter box, and my kitchen cabinet doors are open when I get up in the morning.

The Observation module is the next stage, based on my experience. The newly introduced cat will make its presence known and will carefully observe the human activity in the household. This module is the backbone of the FOS and the one most often in use. The cat will position itself in a location where it has unobstructed sight lines of household activities. In some cases, this will be on top of the refrigerator or the middle of the kitchen table. The cat seems to be programmed, or hard wired, for watching from an elevated position. Human attempts to modify this behavior are met with opposition on the part of the cat and are sometimes accompanied by retribution in the form of scratching on upholstered furniture. The human or humans soon learn to ignore the elevated observation position as much as possible. The cat soon learns every aspect of the human routine from feeding, sleeping, waking, resting, bathing and grooming, and even waste disposal. The Observation module seems to provide data, stimulus, and a feed-back loop for the Expectation and Anticipation modules.

The Expectation module is triggered when the Observation module sends a message that the human is preparing to do a specific task or that the cat has a basic need for food, water, or waste deposition. This module allows the cat to invoke pre-learned responses to events happening around it. When the human picks up car keys the cat will wait respectfully for a pat on the head which soothes the human as he or she leaves the premises. This is most commonly followed by the cat going into sleep or resting status. There seems to be a special function built in for hairball expulsion, but this is a less common and occurs at night and on the human’s bed. As you may recall, I’ve written to you before on this particular issue but your response (“A cat’s got to do what a cat’s got to do”) was somewhat unsatisfactory.

The Anticipation module is also triggered by input from the Observation module. It is similar to the Expectation module but with a higher degree of intensity and speed. For example, when the doorbell rings the cat will automatically go into this module based on behavioral cues learned from the humans and its pre-learned responses. In some cases, the cat might revert to the Exploration module and become invisible to all but the trained human eye. In some cases, the cat might become stalled in the Observation module. In many cases the cat’s movement will become swift and erratic and accompanied by a tripping episode or some other loud encounter with the resident human. There are many other examples of the Anticipation module coming into play, especially around the human’s feeding time or other expected activities. The cat will respond quickly to certain cues such as the human shaking the edible cat treat container. Cat treats, once dispensed as a gratuitous gift by the human, will occasionally be reciprocated by the cat with some form of dead household vermin or pest left in a conspicuous place as a gift for the human. These gifts, and occasionally the expelled hairball, will elicit a loud reaction by the human the next morning.

Of particular concern, and the reason for my letter, is the FOS and the cat’s failure to anticipate and respond to Daylight Savings Time (DST). It would seem to be an easy fix to adjust the FOS to spring forward or fall back on the appointed days. My telephone and laptop computer have this figured out. True, I must go and adjust my clocks twice a year and replace the batteries in smoke detectors, but I would think that something as sophisticated as a cat behavior module would be easily adjusted based on the calendar setting. My cat insists that I wake up and perform all my tasks and bodily functions on its pre-learned schedule rather than the DST clock-time that governs my work and relationships with other humans. The cat is slow to adjust to the DST schedule changes and can be downright obnoxious, especially in the morning when I hear slamming of cabinet doors, upholstery scratching, and the sound of hairball expulsion as I’m trying to get a few more minutes of sleep. Licking, biting and pulling of my hair is not welcome at 7 AM, at least not by an irate cat. So, in closing, I respectfully request that you take this respectful suggestion and my plea on the part of cat owners everywhere and provide a DST fix to the FOS at your earliest opportunity.

Most Sincerely Yours,

A Cat Owner