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Louis Kessler's Behold Blog

Everything In, Nothing Out - Not Helpful for DNA. - Sat, 26 Dec 2015

Do you an amass everything you can that might be related to your genealogy research? You have books in your library. File cabinets full of articles and clippings. Closets with boxes of unsorted picture albums and scrapbooks with letters and ephemera. Videos still on VHS and super 8.

You’ll get to it someday. I know you will. I know I will.

But when you sort through it all, you’ll be looking for just the materials that are helpful to you. Hopefully, as you do so, you’ll be digitizing everything and only keeping originals of documents and anything sentimental and throwing everything else out.

Again, the stuff you save and digitize and organize (by source) to complement your genealogy data, will be just the material that you will use or potentially use to help you document your family and lead to new discoveries.

Okay. So now you’ve got into DNA. You did a test, or a few tests with one or more companies. You expect your genealogy software to load in this data and process it for you in some useful way. The software should use it to help you document your family and lead to new discoveries, right? … (sound of silence)

I was wondering what features developers were adding into their genealogy programs. I asked a question two days ago on Genealogy and Family History StackExchange Q&A site regarding the DNA Features of Genealogy Software. What I found out is that there are at least 5 programs now that have at least some hooks into DNA and allow you to record your sample results. Check out the interesting answers to my question to learn what programs they are and what they do, and if you know something more, be my guest to add an answer.

What became apparent to me is that the programs currently are simply recording your data. They do not yet seem to be doing anything with it that can really help you.

I learned my lesson maybe 20 years ago. I had a house, a job, a young family and finances were a concern. So every receipt, bill, statement and financial transaction went into a program you all must have heard of:  Quicken.

The box of an early version of Quicken

I spent a few hours every week recording my money transactions into this program. Each year I would pay $60 or so to upgrade it. Then I would add more transactions. In total, several hundreds of hours a year were spent doing this.

And what did I get out of it? A few reports run a couple of times a year that would tell me I was spending as much money as I was making. Hmmm. I knew that already by my bank account balance. So I would do a run that would say I’m spending 15% on food, 10% on clothing, 15% on housing … Hmmm. Didn’t really change every year. Once you know this, you know this.

So why was I spending hundreds of hours a year to enter this data? I gave myself a few slaps across my head and after 8 years of doing this, just stopped cold turkey. I immediately gained a several hundred hours a year.

File folders - 12 monthsWhat did I replace it with? For the 99% of receipts that are meaningless after a year, I use a simple file container with 12 file folders with 12 months marked on them. I’d put in my receipts by month, and I’d have them if I needed them. Upon a new month, e.g. January, throw out the old January receipts and start again. Did I need to total up these receipts or categorize them? No. And maybe a couple of times a year, we’d have to go back to an old receipt, and it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to find it. Total time: 30 minutes a year.

Now lets talk about DNA again. There is A LOT of data in your DNA results. There are 100 different summaries you can do of it. You can spend all your time entering it, or spend your time looking for programs that will do that for you, and enter your DNA results into your genealogy software. Why?

Unless you will get something useful out of this, you’re wasting your time.

It appears (unless I am wrong and new answers come up to my StackOverflow question) that genealogy software today will not do anything useful with your DNA data. At the moment, it appears, you will not be doing yourself any favours by spending your time loading your genealogy data into your program.

There are already a good number of utility programs and sites online for analyzing your DNA. By all means use those, and input your DNA data into them in the format they require. Just make sure they could provide something useful for you in return.

But as far as your own genealogy desktop program goes, wait. Wait until the genealogy vendors give some superb functionality you absolutely cannot do without that needs your DNA data to be entered. Then, your time to enter your data will be well spent. Until then, don’t waste your time.

A New Notation for DNA Relationships?? - Sat, 19 Dec 2015

One thing missing that I am adding to the upcoming version 1.2 release of Behold is an indication of relationships between people. If there is one thing not easy to determine, it is how people are related to the main person (also called the proband).

But just as importantly, once you know the relationship, there is much valuable information that can be reported that can aid in DNA research. To do so, there needs to be a concise notation for showing the relationship of one individual to another.

 Note: I purchased the right to use this graphic

I am presenting my proposal for this notation here with the hope that people who are more expert at genealogical DNA research than I can comment and critique and that I can finalize a system that will be simple and will work.

Here is the basis of what I’d like to notate:

We have a person of interest in your family tree who has some sort of relationship to the proband (who is usually you, your spouse, or some relative). We want to designate the connection through male and female lines using:

  • X for a female biologically related
  • Y for a male biologically related
  • ? for a person whose gender is unknown but biologically related
  • - (that’s a hyphen), for a person who is not biologically related

Note that I am using X and Y for female and male which are the universally recognized two sex-determining chromosomes. This is better than using abbreviations for female and male (F, M) or mother, father (M, F) which is English-based and which also can lead to dumb mistakes if the incorrect interpretation is used.

So this is how I propose this notation will be written: You start with the person of interest, work up to the common ancestor (if there is one), and then back down to the proband, selecting the character to represent each person along the path.

Here’s a few examples:

My great-grandfather to me (on my mother’s side):  YYXY
The first Y is my great-grandfather, the second Y is his son (my grandfather) which could be an X if this was my other great-grandfather on my mother’s side, the third character is an X for my mother and the Y at the end is me.

My great-granddaughter to me (via my daughter and grandson):  XYXY
The first X is my-great-granddaughter, the Y following is her father, my grandson, then the X is my daughter, and the last Y is me.

Interestingly, the first example works down from my great-grandfather to me, but the second works up from my great-granddaughter to me. The direction doesn’t matter. The notation will always denote the path from the first person to the second.

Let’s get more complicated and include relationships that have a common ancestor:

My first cousin once removed to me:  XYXYXY
Well, there’s many different ways a person can be a first cousin once removed (1c1r) to me. I’m picking just one of these possibilities with the person being the daughter of my first cousin. So this designates that my 1c1r is female, her father is my first cousin, and his mother’s father is my grandfather. And the connection is on my mother’s side.

Here, the path actually goes up to the common ancestor, and then back down to the proband. In fact, there are really two common ancestors for this line, the other one being my grandmother, and that line would be:  XYXXXY with the “Y” in the fourth position being replaced by an “X”.

Why do we need this? Well, from the series of letters, the DNA-based relationship of the two people can be calculated. The first two examples YYXY and YXYX take 3 steps to go from the first person to the last. Each step is a sharing of 50% the autosomal DNA. That means the first and fourth people should share 50% x 50% x 50% = 12.5% of their autosomal DNA. The XYXYXY in example 3 has six steps from the first to the last. They should share 3.125% of their DNA.

That 3.125% is for the male common ancestor. If his wife/partner is also a common ancestor, then her connection adds another 3.125% and you get the total autosomal share of 6.25% for a first cousin once removed, which is what  all the tables say as shown in the graphic below from DNA-explained.com:

The designation of the sex along the way is also important. All Y’s from the person of interest to your common ancestor indicate a male-line connection and you’ve found a person who could very well be a Y-DNA candidate for your common ancestor. All X’s may indicate a Mitochondrial DNA candidate for your common ancestor. Also, the exact specification of the X’s and Y’s along the way can be used to determine the percentage share of your X chromosome. Using this information, I’ll be able to get Behold to display these percentages.

The two other characters in the notation are also important. If you don’t know the sex of one person along the way, then use a question mark as their placeholder. By doing so, the length of the line is still correct and the DNA relationship percentages can still be calculated, e.g. If your 1c1r’s grandparent was Terry, but you don’t know if Terry was male or female, then you should write:  XY?XXY.

The other character is a hyphen which should be used to designate a person who breaks the biological line. For example, in your genealogy you may have a cousin who was adopted. You still consider them a full cousin, and you want them documented in your family tree. But they are not of use to you in your DNA research. So the hyphen is inserted for people who break the biological connection, e.g. in this case, the parent of your cousin. Then this example would be written like this:  Y-XXY.

I think this gives a lot of information in a concise easy to understand notation. I have been looking, but I have not been able to find any similar notations that have been formalized. Maybe there is something already out there that I’ve missed. If so, could you please tell me about it.

I would really appreciate your comments, ideas and suggestions and I’ll then be able to finalize this possibly new notation.

Refinement: Dec 20:

The simple notation above does not indicate the character representing the common ancestor. Often that person needs to be known, e.g. to see if there is an all-male or all-female connection to the common ancestor. I like the method suggested by Rob Hoare in the comments below to use parenthesis to surround this person. Using this, example 3 above would now be:  XYX(Y)XY.

The nice thing about this extension is that, since there are always two common ancestors, a father and mother, they can both be designated together if desired, as in:  XYX(YX)XY

Then in Behold, I could succinctly show the common ancestors together, e.g.:

Jane Person
Relationship: 1c1r of John Proband via Fred and Wilma Ancestor
     Line: XYX(YX)XY, Shared DNA: 6.25%at, 50%X

where 6.25% is the Autosomal and 50% is the X-chromosome shared percentages between Jane Person and John Proband through this connection.

If a person is related multiple ways through different common ancestors, each relationship can easily be shown on its own line with its own DNA contributions. The DNA contributions are additive, so the total shared DNA can then be shown.

The parenthesis designation can also be used usefully to denote the direction in a direct line.  The first two examples then become:
My great-grandfather to me (on my mother’s side):  (Y)YXY
My great-granddaughter to me (via my daughter and grandson):  XYX(Y)

What Ancestry’s “Retirement” of FTM Really Means - Fri, 11 Dec 2015

Unless you’re a genealogist that has your head in the sand the past few days, you would have heard the big news from Tuesday that Ancestry will be “retiring” its very popular Family Tree Maker desktop genealogy software.

Ancestry has always marketed their software as “the #1 selling family history software”. I can easily believe that pronouncement to be true because, firstly, various incarnations of the software have been on the market for decades, and secondly, because it is one of the few genealogy programs you can find on the shelves of your big box stores in the form of an actual physical box.


I remember 20 years ago, a friend of mine who was an ardent genealogist had Family Tree Maker and he loved it. He raved about it every chance he could.

Family Tree Maker indeed was a well liked program and quite advanced for its time. The reviews at GenSoftReviews for Family Tree Maker Up to Version 16 are still very good which, as I write this, rates 4.11 out of 5. That score would be high enough for the program to earn a GenSoftReviews User’s Choice Award if it were still supported by Ancestry.

About 8 years ago, Ancestry knew that their online trees and records were most important and would be the future of the company. They saw that their Family Tree Maker at the time did not have the capabilities necessary to interface with their online subscription service. A rewrite was required.

They started from scratch as they had to. Doing so was absolutely necessary because they needed to move to a modern programming language which would allow communication between the desktop and online. This was the right move.

But they misstepped. They made several huge mistakes. They completely changed the interface of the program, and existing users were miffed. They  eliminated many of the useful functions of the existing program such as the ability to create the book report and users’ complaints went unheeded. Then they had bugs, major bugs, that for many people prevented installation, crashed the program or froze the computer, and sometimes resulted in a catastrophic loss of data.

Ratings at GenSoftReviews clearly illustrate this: 492 reviews of the current version of Family Tree Maker for Windows currently average 1.80 out of 5, where 1 is the lowest rating that can be given. The Mac version does even worse with 121 reviews averaging 1.53 out of 5. Read some of the reviews and prepare to be amazed by the outrage being shown by the Family Tree Maker users.

Ancestry has had 8 years to address complaints. They could have and likely should have, but that wasn’t their goal. They wanted to get the new version to connect with their online family trees and be able to sync the data. Doing so would have allowed them to use sales of their desktop software to promote new subscriptions to their online service. This was what Ancestry was after.

FamilyTreeMaker 2012 added their TreeSync feature but it didn’t sync everything. There were troubles with it. Service packs came out with “improvements to TreeSync reliability and performance” and “stability” and then FTM 2014 was out with an “improved more robust” TreeSync.

Rather than robust, it was “a bust”. They just could not get it to work well enough for the average users to be satisfied with it.

Now two years have gone by since FTM 2014 came out. Ancestry’s attempt to use its industry embedded software to attract users to its subscription service was not working. Ancestry now knows this and is now changing gears. They want more users of their subscription service. That is their bread and butter. So how can they get more users?

Ancestry has seen the success of MyHeritage who have been partnering with software developers including Aldfaer, Genealogie Online, RootsMagic and Family Historian and allow syncing of data and integration of their matching technologies. They’ve seen the work by FamilySearch to develop GEDCOM X and allow and encourage developers to interface with the FamilySearch Family Tree. FamilySearch now has more than 100 different programs and apps available in their FamilySearch App Gallery.

Ancestry now wants to do the same and use the developer community to provide broader access to their online data. They have seen through MyHeritage and FamilySearch that becoming more open does indeed work to expand a user base. Ancestry now knows that by going alone, they will lose.

How do I know this? Because they said so. After the “outpouring” of thousands of comments to Ancestry’s initial announcement, the very next day Ancestry posted more information. They said:

We are exploring possible relationships with other desktop software solutions that would make it possible for their products to integrate with Ancestry. Stay tuned

So don’t be sad those of you who may ultimately lose your Family Tree Maker program. Be happy! You soon will have many ways to access your online Ancestry account, download your data, share your data, sync your data, and be in control of your data.

I think everything I’ve stated above is the direction that genealogy software is going. The MyHeritage, FamilySearch and Ancestry’s of the world will make the data available and allow us to research and share and collaborate with others. Desktop genealogy software will still be necessary to allow us to keep our own personal copy of our data and our research – the data we have personally verified.

I’m looking forward to the next few years. My ideas for Behold will encompass these thoughts. For my own personal research, I absolutely want to interface with the information from these online services and I want my interface to be Behold. So let me also say what Ancestry has said:  Stay tuned.