Monday, October 27, 2014

Shortest distance between two points

Don’t ask me why I adore this image:

My joy is strictly Platonic. The old Greek fuddy-duddy tried to persuade us that Heaven is full of ideal forms: of dogs, cats, good guys, bad women, mathematical triangles, tables, chairs, whatever… And the vulgar objects that we encounter here on Earth are pale copies of these ethereal forms. Well, the above image indicates that something went wrong on Plato’s way to the theatre. His ideal straight line got screwed up. It ran into a bug. And that bug happened to be a fragment of green DNA-based life. Piss off, Plato…

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Might I have Viking blood?

It's hard to imagine that a quiet and well-behaved old-timer like me might evoke the possibility of his Viking ancestry. Besides, I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of this nice old family portrait—of an ancient ancestor named Sven, on a beach outing with his mates—that was handed down to me by relatives in the Old Country.

Vikings were intrepid adventurers, who were afraid of nothing and nobody… which is not exactly my personal case. Some of them were seafarers who finally settled on the continental shores of the English Channel (like my son François, who is considerably more Viking than I am). On the other hand, the idea of a Viking living in a place like Choranche would be a bit like Nicolas Sarkozy moving into a monastery, and Carla entering a nunnery. (The ex-president has screwed up his return to politics in such a way that my image is maybe not as crazy as it might appear.)

Genealogical research is often similar to science in that we imagine such-and-such a scenario, and then persevere in believing that our speculations might be valid. That’s to say, we only abandon our scenario when we discover that something in our speculations simply doesn’t add up… whereupon we drop it all immediately, like a proverbial load of shit. And there aren’t even any sentimental thanks for the memories. Scientific research is a harsh business. No matter how much poetry was conveyed by the lovely old concept of an omnipresent ubiquitous ether permeating all the infinitesimal interstices of the universe, this theory was trashed instantly and forever as soon as the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, designed to record the existence of ether-drift, returned negative results. In genealogy, of course, we’re light years away from experimental physics, but family-history research and scientific research both necessitate the invention of imaginative yet plausible speculations. And such speculations are “born to die” in the sense that they must be discarded as soon as they no longer correspond to known facts. So, we advance through generations of better and better speculations, while burning all our poorly-built bridges behind us.

For the moment, therefore, I persist in speculating that our Skeffington patriarch in Leicestershire had come across the English Channel from Normandy in the wake of Duke William’s invasion.

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I’ve investigated several theories in an attempt to ascertain the surname of this fellow’s family back in Normandy, but I’ve never been able to obtain any firm facts. Let me invent a plausible name for this Norman ancestor: Sven de Cotentin. I would imagine that Sven lived with his wife and children in the vicinity, say, of the modern town of Coutances. They probably led a simple but quite comfortable rural existence in Normandy, enabling Sven and his family to become candidates for settlement in the captured land on the other side of the English Channel.

I’ve always been intrigued by two obvious questions:

1 — When Sven left for England, did he leave any relatives back in Normandy?

2 — Back in Normandy, what was Sven’s family-history background?

As far as the first question is concerned, we might imagine that Sven had brothers or cousins (on his paternal side) who had not wished to move across to England, because they were happy with their life in Normandy. Going one step further, we might find that descendants of these folk exist today in France, maybe still in Normandy. If this were the case, then we can imagine that these people might decide to carry out DNA tests, in which case our Y-chromosomes would match. Alas, in the online Y-chromosome database, I've never yet come upon a living Frenchman whose data looks anything like mine. For this and other reasons, I tend to believe that the probable answer to that first question is negative. If Sven were sufficiently motivated to move across to England, then his male relatives would have surely been equally enthusiastic about this project… unless, of course, they owned valuable properties in Normandy.

Concerning the second question, it’s perfectly possible that Sven’s ancestors were Vikings (like the ancestors of Duke William himself) who had arrived in the Cotentin region during the 9th century, and decided to settle down there. As for their wives, they may well have been local Gallic girls. This speculation leads us to imagine that Sven’s Viking ancestor might have left male relatives back in Scandinavia, and that descendants of these folk might exist today in a land such as Sweden, Norway or Denmark.

Two days ago, I performed one of my regular searches in the Y-chromosome database. As of a couple of months ago, I’ve had a single match, with the Englishman Hugh Courtenay, an oddly-named grandson of my rogue great-grandfather William Skyvington [1868-1959], described here. Well, the name of a new match has just appeared in this Y-chromosome database. Here’s my current summary:

Click to enlarge

The Swedish lady who recently submitted this data—on behalf of her husband’s maternal uncle named Sven-Erik Johansson—has promised to send me the complete set of 67 marker values as soon as they’re available. Incidentally, the earliest known ancestor of Sven-Erik Johansson was a certain Sven Nilsson Durmin [1709-1780]. I'm awaiting explanations from the lady concerning the apparent change in surname.

For the moment, as you can see, my match with Sven-Erik Johansson is based upon a subset of 30 markers, and the so-called “genetic distance” (the difference between our respective values) is 2, which is the same as my distance from the Courtenay values (for 37 markers). Obviously, my excitement is premature, since the Johansson/Skyvington genetic distance might explode beyond acceptable bounds when we obtain the remaining 37 values. But I take advantage of this delay in order to revel in the idea (maybe only momentarily) that I might at last be sailing in the wake of our Viking…

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Big picture

If this tiny video doesn’t blow your mind out, then nothing will:

I like to think that all this is happening just alongside our friendly neighborhood. So, we’re looking in over the back-yard fence, as it were, and wondering what the Joneses might be up to. Well, it so happens that they might well be stirring up shit. But jeez, they’ve been doing that for ages, ever since we moved in. We should have known all along that it wouldn’t be easy, trying to win friends and influence people in that kind of vicious environment. Frankly, I dunno what to do. In any case, I’ve supplied the exact name of the intruder: Laniakea. Maybe somebody might report them to neighborhood watch.

Infinitesimally slow changes

Four sisters. Forty years. This simple and beautiful pictorial story started in 1975 with a delightful image.

— photo by Nicholas Nixon, annotated by William Skyvington

The original photo was taken in Connecticut by Nicholas Nixon, who happened to be the husband of the young woman named Bebe Brown. Afterwards—year in, year out, for 40 years—Nicholas called upon his wife and her sisters for the creation of an updated portrait. Click here to see the result, published by the New York Times.

I’m reminded of a fascinating theme for reflection, inspired by Richard Dawkins, concerning the impossibility of ascertaining the moment at which one kind of being is transformed into another kind of being, one species into another, one fossil into another. Was there a year in which the lovely Brown sisters ceased to be “girls”, changing into “young women”, followed by later years in which they became “women”, then “middle-aged women” ? No, it would be pointless, if not stupid, to seek such punctual moments. Everything happened gradually.

We are often tempted to imagine that life is punctuated by so-called events, when the present leaps instantly towards the future. In fact, time never “leaps”. It simply nudges imperceptibly forwards… as in the case of the Brown sisters.