Monday, January 8, 2018

My Cousin AJ Jacobs Has Written Another Great Book!

I really love reading books by the author A.J. Jacobs, and have avidly consumed most of his written works. I only say "most" as I'm sure some article he wrote for a local newspaper when he was 10 has probably escaped my attention. In any case, one of the things I like best is that his smart and sarcastic insights are what I wish I could aspire to if I was any good at writing myself. His prose resonates with me, and his topics are mysteriously in-tune with my own life (yes, I too read the entire encyclopedia when I was in grade school).

In 2009 I briefly corresponded with him, and on 26 Oct 2009 I invited him to join the big family tree on Geni. A mere four years later on 9 Nov 2013 I got an email from Geni telling me that he had accepted! That's lightning response speed in the genealogy world -- you all know what I'm talking about: that one super important close DNA match who still hasn't responded to your many attempts to contact them.

Now, I'm not taking credit for getting A.J. involved in Genealogy. I'm not even suggesting he joined Geni at my recommendation. In fact, according to his story it was his eighth cousin Jules Feldman in Israel who was the tipping point. I only hope that my tiny grain of sand helped with the gravitational pull that eventually led to his involvement.

Well, as AJ does when he does get involved, he really gets involved! He hit the genealogy world full steam and I'm not sure they really knew what hit them.  On 6 Jun 2015 he held The Global Family Reunion in Queens, New York, and in late 2017 he published a book about it all.

It's All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World's Family Tree
By A.J. Jacobs

I think the thing I like best about the book is that it is completely readable by anyone, and each chapter imparts an important lesson in a funny and down to earth manner.  Gosh darn it, that's exactly what I've been trying to do with this site, and he just did it oh so much better!  Game on!

No no, thank you Cousin AJ. This book couldn't have been more timely and on-topic, and almost seems like it was written specifically for me -- even though I know that it wasn't!

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Growing Family Memorial Day

When I was a child, Memorial Day meant that summer was officially here. That it was time for beach, barbecue, beach barbecue, frisbee, and best of all... no school!

We didn't have any close family who were lost in war, so we didn't have anyone to remember at a solemn cemetery visit. We skipped that, and moved directly on to the fresh ice cream and swimming lessons.

Life was carefree and untouched.  The meaning of Memorial Day was abstract and a little lost. Memorial Day honors those who have fallen in the line of service for their country. Not knowing any of those, we had to really stretch. We honored neighbor's cousins, friends of friends, veterans who died of old age, and even living veterans (forgetting that's what Veterans' Day is for).

As I've dug into our family history, I have found some of the fallen. Not very many, to be sure, but the list keeps growing ever year as I track down second cousins, third cousins, and more. Genealogy has many surprises, and finding relatives who gave up their lives for their country is one of the heart-stoppers for me (others include infant deaths and holocaust victims).

So on this Memorial Day here in the United States, I'm taking the time to list out my family's patriots who gave their lives in service to their country. Their home country is not always America, but it was the home country of my family. This is my personal memorial day, honoring those who've fallen in protection of their home and family.

My Own Personal Family Memorial Day

Leo Dorman Martyn (1892-1915)
1915 Leo Dorman Martyn, Australian in WWI at Gallipoli
Private Leo Dorman Martyn of the Australian Infantry was born in Moruya, New South Wales, Australia in Decemember 1892. He was my grandfather Kessler's second cousin via the Lukes and Martyn families of Cornwall.

Leo was wounded on the first landing at Gallipoli in WWI on 25 April 1915. After landing, he was attaching at the top of the ridge about half a mile from the beach. He was struck by a bullet and fell backwards down the cliff, breaking his back. Leo died a few days later on 2 May 1915, at the age of 22, aboard a hospital ship as it was leaving the Peninsula.

I've seen the 1981 movie, Gallipoli, with Mel Gibson, but now I really need to see the movie again. Urgently.  With this new context, it will surely take on a new meaning to me. It will probably make me cry. I certainly didn't cry the first time I saw it back in the 1980s.

Leo Martyn is one of the honored heroes on the Roll of Honour each Anzac Day on April 25th. I only just discovered him recently, missing that date by about two weeks. Watch out for next year!

Leo was 22 years old, unmarried with no children.

Ludwig Bodenheimer (1879-1918)
1918 Ludwig Bodenheimer, German in WWI
Corporal Ludwig Bodenheimer was my great grandfather Bodenheimer's third cousin. I'm quite certain they probably never met and never knew about each other, however I have tracked down living descendants of Ludwig and reunited our Bodenheimer family.

Ludwig was born in Waibstadt, and died on the field of battle during WWI on 23 August 1918. He fought for Germany, and as I've read more of the history of WWI, it seems that the entire thing was a real mess and probably should never have happened.

A commemorative plaque to honor him and the other fallen of his hometown of Bad Nauheim was placed in 1921. Sadly, during the Nazi period, his part of the memorial plaque was defaced as he was Jewish. I've tried to do as many Photoshop tricks as I know to clean up the photo, but as you can see it's still a bit mangled. Many Jews fought for Germany in WWI, which is one of the reason that they didn't immediately leave when Hitler came to power -- they were decorated veterans or families of the fallen. What could be more German than that?

Ludwig was 39 years old, married with two children.

Edward John Fry, Jr. (1922-1943)
1943 Edward John Fry, Jr., American in WWII in Italy
My mother's first cousin is probably the closest relative we've lost in war. Corporal Edward John Fry, Jr. was killed in action in Italy during WWII.  He was born in Garrison, Benton County, Iowa on 3 December 1922. Edward Fry enlisted in the army on 3 October 1941 and went overseas with the first American troops following Pearl Harbor. He was in the US 133rd 34th "Red Bull" division, and after some training in Ireland they shipped out to North Africa. News that he was wounded arrived in Iowa in June 1943. At that time his division was securing the Chougui Pass near Eddekhila, Tunisia in preparation for the invasion of Scilly.

9 September 1943 was D-Day in Italy, as US troops landed at Salerno. It appears that Edward had recovered enough from his injuries to join his regiment as they crossed the Volturno river in Italy to secure the town of Alife.  He was killed in action near Alife on 21 October 1943.

Edward was 20 years old, unmarried with no children.

Harris W. Fehr (1917-1944)
1944 Harris W. Fehr, American in WWII in Italy
Harris W. Fehr served in the same "Red Bull" division as Edward Fry. Harris served in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy; participated in Battle for Rome, 1944, invasion of No. Africa. Stationed in Algiers several months and was at one time attached dto Hqs. of Gen. Eisenhower as Honor Guard

He was born in Tama County, Iowa on 5 December 1917 and was Killed in Action on June 3, 1944 in Italy during the Battle For Rome, most likely near the town of Lanuvio , Italy as part of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division.

Harris is a little more distantly related to me, as he was the first cousin of Dean Gilliatt's wife. Dean is the next entry.

Harris was 26 years old, unmarried with no children.

Dean Willis Gilliatt (1920-1944)
1944 Dean Willis Gilliatt, American in WWII in the Pacific
This is probably the story I know the most about, and I need to sit down and properly write the entire case up. It hit me the hardest.

Dean Willis Gilliatt was born in Benton County, Iowa on 6 December 1920.  He is my great uncle, Edward George Fry's first cousin twice removed. Edward Fry is indeed the father of the Edward Fry listed above, so that also makes Dean the second cousin once removed of Edward John Fry, Jr.

Dean was a Naval Aviator, flying off the U.S.S. Gambier Bay. He was killed in action off the coast of Saipan during the Pacific campaign. On 19 June 1944, the Wildcat fighter plane he was flying wasn't properly trimmed for takeoff and he crashed into the sea as all his shipmates watched in horror. His wife got the news of his death on the same day that his daughter was born.

The exact location of Dean Gilliatt’s fatal accident was 43.5 miles east of the island of Saipan in the Marianas at 15°12’00”N,146°27’00”E

Dean was 23 years old, married with one child.

1944 Leslie Arthur Martyn, New Zealander in WWII
Leslie Arthur Martyn (1911-1944)
Flight-Lieutenant Leslie Arthur Martyn was my grandfather Kessler's second cousin. I doubt they ever met, and I don't have any pictures from that entire branch of Martyn cousins.

Leslie was born in Kumara, New Zealand on 30 March 1911, the son of Edward Martyn and Jessie Andrews.  He was one of ten children.

On 21 November 1944, his Lancaster Mk.I NN745 AA-A took off at 13:46 with him in the pilot seat. This was a three-aircraft operation to lay mines in the Oslo Fjord. Two aircraft planted their mines in good visibility and without opposition. One aircraft captained by NZ417082 A/F/L L. Martyn, failed to return.

All seven crew are commemorated on the Runnymeade Memorial.
  1. F/L Leslie Arthur Martyn, RNZAF NZ417082 – Pilot.
  2. F/O Thomas Issac Elliot, RNZAF NZ421364 – Navigator.
  3. F/O Allan Roy Frank Dunkerley, RAAF AUS.423083 – Air Bomber.
  4. F/S John Calverley Crabtree, RAFVR 1492180 – Wireless Operator .
  5. Sgt. Charles Ronald Starkey, RAFVR 1863956 – Flight Engineer.
  6. Sgt. George Lindsay, RAFVR 1624589 – Mid Upper Gunner.
  7. P/O Andrew Roy Wright, RCAF J.88789 – Rear Gunner.
Leslie was 33 years old, and as far as my research shows no wife or children.

Thomas Burton Lukes (1947-1968)
1968 Thomas Burton Lukes, American in Vietnam War
Thomas Burton Lukes is my mother's third cousin. I don't think she ever knew about him, as I'm not sure she even knew or met all her first cousins.

Thomas was born in Waterford, Pontiac County, Michigan on 18 December 1947 to my grandfather's second cousin, Thomas A. Lukes. His grandfather, Thomas B. Lukes was my great grandmother's first cousin. That's how cousining works.

Thomas was a member of company A, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry which served in Vietnam beginning on 22 September 1967. Thomas's tour of duty started 27 February 1968.

On day 137 of his tour, 13 July 1968, Specialist 4th Class Thomas Burton Lukes and another member of "A" Company (Ronald Pillow) were killed near the base of Cay Giep Mountain (about 14.346353, 109.085670) in Binh Dinh Province by a 105mm artillery shell that had been modified as a pressure detonated mine. Death was instantaneous.  Thomas was promoted to the rank of Sargent posthumously, and awarded the bronze star for meritorious service. He is honored on Panel 52W, Row 23 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.

Thomas was 20 years old, unmarried with no children.

Memorial Day has Real Meaning to Me

I took an informal poll the last few days, with a sample size of about 4. Many people have been v ery lucky just like me. They didn't have any family members who were killed in wartime. They were able to enjoy Memorial Day without thought or pain. They honored the memory of those who've given their lives to protect our way of life, but it didn't really hit home. It wasn't really real. While I still can't even imagine losing a son, brother, father, or close friend; this growing still hits me where I live. It's real to me.

The lesson here is that genealogy makes history relevant and relatable. Memorial Day is not an abstract concept now. It's a real thing, and as you find your connections to history through genealogical adventures, you too will discover how many new things really matter to you. Truly matter.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How to be an Agile Genealogist

Albert Einstein's desk the day he died
Do you have notes and lists all over your desk reminding you of all those genealogy sites you need to visit? Those surnames your need to research? That e-mail you need to write to the family history center in your great grandparent's hometown?

How do you ever get anything done? 

Well, I know way too much about the Agile software development processes. It's the same in the software world. Thousands of great ideas, and only the time and money to do a few of them a week. I can talk about Agile for hours and hours and hours and hours and I won't bore you to tears about why it is so amazing and awesome. Yes, it's based on Lean manufacturing principals, and all sorts of science. So what. For us in the genealogy world, there are just two things you need to know:

1) Prioritize your next tasks. Giant lists are not at all helpful. They are overwhelming. In Agile they call this your backlog. Manage your backlog. If you only research ten genealogy mysteries in the next month, what would they be? Put them in order on a shorter list: your "Prioritized Burn-down List."

2) Work on one thing at a time and finish it. As much as you think you can multi-task, you can't. Genealogists are human. Yes, and humans can only work on one thing at a time. This is called managing the WIP (Work in Progress). Do one thing; finish it, and move to the next. For you, your limit is one thing. That's your WIP limit.  Teams of people can do more than one thing; and you are a team of one.

There, was that too painful? I actually introduced you to some important Agile terms: burndown list, backlog, WIP, and WIP limits. Easy stuff, and you're one step closer to starting that second career as an app developer!

How to Use Trello to Become an Agile Genealogist

Yes, all the kids these days are using Trello. Dropping Trello into a conversation with your granddaughter will blow her mind. Try it!

Step 1) Sign up for Trello, it's free! 

Really, it's free for all the features you'll need for genealogy! Go to and sign up! Do this now. It's the real deal. Millions of people are using it.

Step 2) Create your first board

The dreaded blank screen.  Trello is so flexible, you can do anything you'd like. Therefore, it's easy to get stuck here. Follow me onward friends! Create a board called "Genealogy" or something sensible like that. Once you master Trello, you'll probably want to create another board called "Things for my spouse to do around the house" and then another and another. It's addictive.

Once you create the board you'll end up with this screen:

Step 3) Create your lists

Remember what I said about how giant lists can destroy your life? Oh, I must have left that part out. Anyway, the way to manage a giant list is to spilt it up into smaller lists. In the simplest Agile process, we create Kanban boards that have three lists: To-Do, Doing, and Done.

I recommend for genealogy, that your lists look like this, working in that same Kanban fashion left to right.   All the things you want to do are on the left.   All the things you've done are on the right. And in the middle, instead of just "Doing" you make three lists, Next Week, Tomorrow, and Today.    So, five lists to sort things into:

  1. Someday -- these are things you don't want to forget. They need to be on a list. 
  2. Next Week -- these items actually need to get done this month; they are just that important.
  3. Tomorrow -- the priority short list I need to do when I'm done with today's work.
  4. Today -- this is the one thing you need to do today. Finish it. 
  5. Done -- large list of completed tasks. Yay you! 

Feel free to change the names of the lists to something that really works for you. An important part of Agile is the idea of trying something, reflecting on the experience, and modifying thing to work better for you.   Add another list if you need one. I have one called "Daily" right next to Today that is a list of all the things I need to do every day, like Twitter, Facebook, and the like.

Step 4) Fill in the lists with cards

Now the fun part.  Start adding cards to the list. Cards are the tasks you need to do. One card for each task. These are those Post-It notes that are all over your wall, desk, and computer. Click on "Add a card..." and type them in.

One rule about cards. Each card should be no more than a day's work. "Scan Photos" is a great card, but if you can't do it all in a day, you'll need to break it down into multiple cards. Step it out into things like, "Buy Scanner", "Sort photos to be scanned", and "Scan important photos from uncle's album".

I recommend adding all your cards to the "Someday" list. Type them in as fast as you can. Get them all into that horrible giant list catch all bucket.

Then sort the cards into their proper list. Just drag and drop.  Grab the one card you need to work on today, and move it over to the Today column.

Next, ask yourself, "If I only do four things this week, what are they?"  Find those cards and add them to Tomorrow's list.

Step 5) Do a Task and Finish a Card

Hopefully, the card in Today's bucket is called something like "Try Trello for Genealogy."  Well, that's done.  Move it into Done. Done done done!

Next, and this is important, pull the next card from the top of tomorrow's list. Drag it into the now-empty today column.  Always pull the top-most card. Therefore, always put the most important next task at the top of your lists. Drag the cards around. It's actually fun and easy.  You're a prioritizing wizard now!

I had to sit through two full days of time-management classes to learn how to break through the tyranny of the inbox, and you've mastered it in the ten minutes it took to read this post: take large lists and break them up horizontally into smaller, prioritized lists.

Advanced Features

Trello has some amazing features that will help you along the way. My favorites include the following:

  • Due dates: if something actually has to be done by a certain date you can get a reminder a few days before it's due. This tells you to find that card and move it closer to the top of the tomorrow pile. 
  • Trello Apps: you can install the Trello app on your iPad, phone, or other mobile device and have your to-do list with you wherever you go. You can even add things to it, and it is all synched together.  
  • Teams: Trello was actually built for teams, so if you have another researcher working with you, there is a good deal of communication and collaboration built in. 
  • Checklists: each card can have a checklist of all the little tasks that can be checked off as you do them. 
  • Photos: yes, you can add images to Trello cards. Especially cool when taking photos with your iPhone at a research center. 

Seriously, sign up for a free Trello board today.