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The Great Questions (and Some Less-Than-Great Answers)

Call it a Giggle Search. Type a question word (who, what, when, where, why, how) in Google’s search box, see what questions Google suggests, and offer your own silly answers.

“Who unfollowed me?” This is a new extreme in paranoia, not just wondering who’s following you, but who’s not following you. That creepy-looking guy behind you seems to be following you, but look at all the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people around you who aren’t! Happy unbirthday.

“What does my name mean?” Well, ya know, it’s kinda hard to answer that since you haven’t actually told me what your name is. But I’m in IT, so I’m used to questions like this. Or maybe your name spoke some nonsense to you, and you’re trying to make sense of it. Hmm.

“Where is Chuck Norris?” Really? People need to track his location at all times? We need a new smartphone app that shows you Chuck Norris‘s current whereabouts on a map, with directions and recommendations for advantageous viewing. Chuck won’t have to ask who’s unfollowing him, because he’ll be too busy looking over his shoulder, and asking shopkeepers to hide him. But at least we know what Chuck Norris’s name means.

“When is Labor Day 2012?” Sorry, dude, you missed it. Maybe you were too busy unfollowing Chuck to notice.

“Why is the sky blue?” This has been answered many times over, including some silly sciency answers and Mr. Bean’s cogent summary, but I’m more interested in a different question: “Why isn’t the sky blue?” And anyway, why is blue the only sky color anyone cares about? Poor gray! Poor nighttime! But if you’re staring at the sky, you’re not following Chuck Norris, so maybe he’s the one wondering who’s unfollowing him.

“How do you know?” You’ve come to the right place.



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“Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Internet Quotes” — Albert Einstein

A lot of quotes get attributed to Albert Einstein. It seems he didn’t say any of the following:

  • “If a man is kissing a pretty girl while driving safely, he is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
  • “If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”
  • “Evil is the absence of God.”
  • “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.”
  • “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
  • “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
  • “I wish I was as smart as Jim.”

These quotes get passed around a lot, but “Frequent repetition doesn’t prove anything.” — Abraham Lincoln (who also posts a lot on Facebook)

“No, Lincoln didn’t say that. I did.” — Benjamin Franklin

Enter the Genealogical Proof Standard(GPS) as a way to weigh evidence. I do lots of genealogical digging, and I find that lots of family tree info posted on the Internet is either unsourced or it’s clearly rubbish (a child born before his grandparents???). The difference between the good info and the bad info is whether the person posting it followed the GPS. Quoting from the official GPS description: “The GPS consists of five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

In short, the GPS means you build up enough evidence to say that this is probably true, and the alternatives probably aren’t. It’s not proof beyond all reasonable doubt, but it’s stronger than saying something is merely plausible or that you hope it’s true or you think it’s true.

The problem with the quotes that keeping getting attributed to Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and others is that they miss on all counts, just like the lesser genealogical contributions posted online.

Take the insanity quote. I’ve been unable to find any verifiable source for the quote. I haven’t found any original sources. I haven’t found anyone who said, “It’s in this book/paper he wrote, which you can look up; see page x.” Nobody has said, “He said it during an interview held on mm/dd/yy, and a transcript/recording is available.” Nobody has said, “It’s in this letter he wrote, which has been verified, and here’s where you can find the letter.” Whether or not my search for a source counts as reasonably exhaustive, I haven’t uncovered a single source that someone could look up. So far, assigning the insanity quote to Einstein falls short of the mark for the first three of the GPS guidelines.

How about conflicting evidence? Sometimes, the insanity quote gets attributed to Ben Franklin, and sometimes to more recent figures. Take a look at the discussion on the Benjamin Franklin Wikiquote page. For the insanity quote, conflicting evidence about who said it is at best unresolved, and maybe even tilted away from Einstein. This falls short of the mark for the fourth GPS guideline.

Without hitting the first four guidelines, I can’t offer up the fifth: a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion” that claims Einstein is the source of that definition of insanity.

An additional element of genealogical research that’s useful outside of genealogy is evaluating the quality of a source. The merest rumor or vague recollection can be a source, but they’re not very good ones. A low-quality sources gives you something to check out if it seems plausible, but it’s not strong evidence.

The best genealogical sources were created at the time by someone who was present and well-informed, like a marriage record created at the time. The worst genealogical sources were created long after, by someone who wasn’t there, who got the information from someone else who wasn’t there; the focus is often more on what sounds cool than on what’s accurate. Lots of the Einstein quotes getting passed around online are like the worst genealogical sources.

Why do I care? “Does it matter who said what, if it’s a good quote?” — Dalai Lama

I don’t want to add to the flood of misinformation on the Internet. I don’t like passing around rumor as truth. The ability to draw a sound conclusion is terribly important in the world today, so I’m disappointed when I see a disregard for accuracy, even on something as mundane as a good one-liner. Or look at it this way: if you were playing a trivia game, it’s the difference between right and wrong … unless the trivia game itself did a sloppy job of verifying its answers.

I’ll end on a legitimate quote from Einstein:

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” — Albert Einstein


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Employers Asking for Facebook Passwords

In Protecting Your Passwords and Your Privacy (March 23, 2012), Facebook reports a rise in “employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.” Facebook’s good advice: Don’t do it, whether you’re an employee or an employer.

It’s a bad idea in so many ways, in addition to the obvious intrusion into your privacy:

  • You’d violate the terms of your Facebook account. Facebook’s Statements of Rights and Responsibilities says “You will not share your password” and you will not “let anyone else access your account.” I question the overall ethics of an organization that asks you to violate agreements.
  • It violates the privacy of your friends, too. Friends who thought they were sharing just with you or a limited group would be in for a surprise. And then what if your friend turns out to be someone the employer knows?
  • Virtually every set of privacy/security guidelines available tells you not to share your password. Keeping your passwords to yourself is a widely recognized best practice.
  • Using someone else’s password is identity theft. You’re not just getting access to their info. You are that person, for online purposes. Anything you do with their account will look like that person did it. What if you (as the employer) accidentally delete something on someone’s Facebook account? or post something when you forgot to log out of someone else’s identity?
  • It’s like asking illegal interview questions. As an example, take a look at Steer clear of these 10 illegal job interview questions. Every one of the 10 questions listed there – like family status and plans, religion, and age – is the kind of thing you could find out if you logged in on someone else’s Facebook account.
  • You can become a suspect. Twenty or so years ago, before Facebook of course, we had a team that used a shared ID and password instead of individual IDs. At first, they resisted the idea of moving to individual IDs. (Even that long ago, sharing passwords was recognized as a bad practice, so we stamped it out where we found it.) They didn’t want to hear about best practices or other noble purposes that interfered with their perceived convenience. What finally won them over? “What if something goes wrong, and we find out that account did it? If you use that account, you become a suspect.” That got their attention. They couldn’t get individual accounts fast enough. Bring that forward to Facebook. If an employer has access to the Facebook ID of someone who’s up to no good, the employer becomes a suspect. A malicious Facebook user only has to say, “It wasn’t me, but Company X uses my account too; they did it.”

For my part, I’ve never encountered an employer who dared to ask employees and candidates for their passwords to Facebook or anything else. I’m alarmed that Facebook is reporting an increase.

I don’t have particular heartburn over an employer seeing what you’ve posted publicly. You did, after all, make it public on the Internet, so there’s no expectation of privacy there. An employer who wants to see what you didn’t make public, and who wants not only to see it, but also to use your online identity, is an altogether different matter.


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Visitors, Not Locusts

What’s the opposite of “a plague of locusts”? How about “an enjoyment of visitors”?

We returned, not long ago, from our second Caribbean cruise. As before, we deliberately chose a small cruise ship with a mere 300 passengers, instead of a large cruise ship with thousands of passengers. Also as before, we loved it, and much of our enjoyment came from being on a smaller cruise ship.

If the ship is small enough, you get to visit places the big cruise ships bypass. You feel more like a visitor than a plague of locusts. We had avoided cruises for years because we heard mostly about the big mega-ships with four digits’ worth of passengers, fixed dining times, Vegas-style shows on board, and massive crowds descending on big tourist destinations. None of those features held any attraction for us.

On our first cruise, the difference was illustrated clearly for me when the ship stopped at Saint Martin. We arrived in Marigot, the capital on the French side of the island – too small for big cruise ships. Our 300-passenger ship was the big ship in port. We had a pleasant visit walking around the town and stopping for a nice lunch of local food. There were no crowds and no rush. We felt like visitors getting a taste of the local culture.

Then we took a bus over to Philipsburg, on the Dutch side (Sint Maarten). Looking out into the harbor, we saw several big cruise ships lined up. We guessed there were 5 to 10 thousand tourists swarming the place. Philipsburg was picturesque and welcoming, but the tourist area was crowded, crowded, crowded. That made it less enjoyable for us. It was somewhat like a trip to Epcot Center – a busy tourist-ized emulation instead of the real thing. (We’ve enjoyed Epcot Center in its own way in the past, but it’s still an emulation, not a substitute for experiencing another country or another culture.)

Saint Martin was the starting point on our recent cruise. We flew in a day early and stayed in Marigot. Again, we had a perfectly delightful visit. We got to look around the town, check out the market, relax when and where we felt like it, and eat some good food. We had our pick of where we wanted to go, because we weren’t swept up in a locust swarm. We got to talk to locals.

Interesting side note: In Sint Maarten, I didn’t spot a single word of Dutch anywhere, except where a Dutch surname showed up in some company’s name. All the signs were in English: stores, restaurants, civic buildings, road signs, everything. The Sint Maarten constitution says Dutch and English are the official languages; nevertheless, I didn’t see or hear a word of Dutch anywhere.

The difference between big ships and small was illustrated for us again when the ship landed in Le Marin, Martinique. According to the excursion manager on board, there were about 10,000 cruise passengers descending on Fort-de-France, several miles away. In Le Marin, we were visitors, and ours was the big ship in port. We had the chance to interact with the local population. We got to visit places that the local population would visit. It seemed like the most frequently asked question from the Martinicans was an eager “Are you Americans from the boat?”

At just about every cruise stop, the tourist crowds were small enough to let us enjoy the local sights and culture at a satisfactory pace. And our “hotel” (the ship) was nearby. That’s what we wanted out of a cruise.


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