Sunday, December 15, 2013


A Response to Adam R. Brown and E. Randol Schoenberg

I have shamelessly borrowed the title of this essay from my cousin Adam Brown's "Big Bang" presentation in Boston. Though we have significant differences of opinion on these matters under discussion, I sincerely believe they can be discussed calmly and civilly, as befits our one big Jewish family.

In my previous encounter with Randy Schoenberg on the subject of Geni some months ago, I off-handedly told him that aside from anything else, the structure of the large Geni tree makes my ADD kick in and that I only look at Geni when a client is paying me to do so. I suppose that was a bit extreme, so in the interest of civility, I hope we both can set that aside.
The above is the opening of the first draft of an article which was just published in the Fall issue of Avotaynu, under the title   
Concerns about Geni and Other “Collaborative Genealogy” Websites.

Adam and Randy's articles were the lead in AVOTAYNU's Summer issue, which was published in September.

Rabbi Jeff Marx suggests:
that we use "Amalgamative Genealogy" for Geni and other sites that exist simply to compile names into one big unity, and reserve "Collaborative Genealogy" for the real process of give and take interaction with others using genealogical standards of proof.
 An excellent idea, though I think I prefer the term "Patchwork" to the cumbersome "Almagamative." Kind of like a quilting bee.

Following is my article as it appears in AVOTAYNU. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Again, I want to thank Varda Meyers Epstein for assisting me with this. There was a bit of a mixup and I saw proofs of the pieces by Adam and randy only one day before AVOTAYNU wanted my first draft response. Varda reviewed my work several times during that day, otherwise there is no way I would have made that deadline. She also reviewed the subsequent  revisions.

Oh, and Sallyann Sack Pikus, the editor I worked with, wrote:
You made a substantial contribution to what I really hope will be a "serious" (good word!) discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the Geni approach.

There are a few other examples which were not included in the final draft of the article.

In one of my family branches, there is a woman who had a child from a husband whom she divorced soon after. That child was raised by the second husband, together with the subsequent children, and took his surname. The mother said she did not want the first husband mentioned on the family tree. The fact that I have a database that is separate from the website allows me to follow the mother's wishes on the website - even the password-protected page, where living people are named - while maintaining the correct information in my Brother's Keeper database, which only I see.

In another case, a third cousin on the Pikholz side was horrified that her name and the names of her brother and sister not appear anywhere. I found that a bit peculiar, especially since the sister's son was perfectly happy to appear openly on the password-protected page. That page now includes he three of them as follows
(1)  Sister of PRIVATE-PERSON-WHO-PREFERS-HER-NAME-NOT-APPEAR-IN-PUBLIC b. Denver CO 1950 m. Anthony Gronich b. Los Angeles 1949.

(2)  Brother of PRIVATE-PERSON-WHO-PREFERS-HER-NAME-NOT-APPEAR-IN-PUBLIC b. Abt 1954, m. Sandy xxxxx, b.1930's.


The names of the children of the sister appear in full.

Both of those examples refer to the importance of maintaining a database, distinct from what appears on a public website. I am not sure that the AVOTAYNU article was sufficiently emphatic on that point.

Adam wrote in his article about the technological advances in image identification. I agree that this is important for many people, especially the younger researchers who are Adam's target audience. I told the following story, which was edited out:

On some of these technology issues, I have to trust the experts. But there is a picture on my office wall of my son Renanel and my daughter Hadas, in profile, working in my mother's kitchen maybe a dozen years ago, when they were both teenagers. Hadas was here a couple of weeks ago and pointed out that this is not Renanel at all, but one of my nephews. The only reason she recognized him was that she remembers the occasion. But if you tell me that your facial recognition technology can get it right, then good for you.

I mentioned in my original opening that I have ADD issues with Geni and other tree-type programs. Part of that is because I have trouble telling where I am and where I am going. But there is also an issue of horizontal scrolling. This was in the first draft:

Nonetheless, my genealogy mentor Carol Skydell taught me that people build websites to scroll vertically, not horizontally, for good reason. Horizontal scrolling is much more difficult and people cannot do it as well. It's like a book – for thousands of years we have been reading from side to side within a defined area and then proceed down the page. I'd bet that no one ever wrote a Torah-type scroll with long scrolling horizontals.Perhaps that is just "old peoples' talk" but I see it in my own web behavior, even on my 24" screen.

Of course you cannot record tens of thousands of names in a vertical tree-type chart. (Real trees, are, of course, vertical.) But it doesn't mean I have to choose to work that way when I have my own options. Those invariably involve presenting one family at a time with links, rather than linking them all via dynamic screens.
I understand that Randy asked for an advance copy of this article and intends to have a rebuttal in the Winter AVOTAYNU. I told Gary Mokotoff (publisher of AVOTAYNU) that this may go on for a few iterations and he thought that would be fine. I believe that I am not alone on my side of the debate and I hope someone else would get involved in the response to Randy's next piece - if in fact it is accepted for publication. Preferably someone with more hands-on experience with Geni that I have. (I saw some of Randy's comments on his own site, and was disappointed to find my own positions presented in a distorted way.)

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BLOG #100
Believe it or not, this is my one hundredth blog post. I began nearly two years ago with a single item and chose the blog style to enable discussion among a group of people. Nothing ever came of that, but it quickly became a weekly thing that I do partly to maintain self-discipline.

Blogger tells me that there are four or five hundred unique visits each week, though the comments certainly do not reflect that. My thanks to all the readers - those who comment on the blog, those who comment on Facebook and elsewhere and those who do not respond at all.

Now it's on to the second hundred - or at least  number 101, which I can tell you now, will be about the Jerusalem snow of 1969..


  1. You give me too much credit. Which is better than damning me with faint praise :-)
    Mazal tov on #100.

  2. For those who saw the comments on Randy's site, here is what I replied to him on Facebook:

    Although we are Facebook friends, this did not show up on my timeline. Other things of yours do. Not sure why.
    In any case, I wanted to post a brief response on the site itself, but it did not give me access to do so. I only read your opening paragraph. When you began a sentence with " So certain is Pickholtz that his, and only his, method leads to truth," it was clear that you did not read my piece to the end, as my closing paragraph emphasizes exactly the opposite. You also seem to have misunderstood the use of some of the terms you cited earlier in the paragraph, or at least the contexts in which I used them.
    Let;'s keep it civil, OK?

    1. Civil is good. And actually civil is easier when there is a real- time give and take, and I will try to post some constructive "gives" in response to your article. For example, facial recognition is only a tool, particularly useful in attaching names to photos in group photos. But it is no substitute for first hand knowledge. See how easy it was to clear that up?

    2. You chose an example where we have no difference of opinion, which is why it was edited out.

      As I know nothing about face recognition technology (and have a tendency not to trust it unless convinced otherwise), I wonder if such technology would recognizee that as my nephew and not my son, when the thought never occurred to me until my daughter pointed it out.

  3. Would love to publish my article online. Do I need to clear the copyright with Avotaynu?

    1. I don't know the legality, but in any case I mention it to them as a courtesy, especially since I am using their page, with whatever else they put on it.

      Sallyann has said that she has no objection, but requests that I cite the specific issue.