Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas lesson about variables

Some of us are old enough to remember the “good old days” of Christmas tree lights. These were the ones where any defective bulb knocked the whole string out of commission.

Those who had enough patience or lacked sufficient money to purchase the upgraded version underwent the process of removing each bulb in sequence and replacing it with a bulb known to be good. Usually that was sufficient to solve the problem.

However, there was always that complicating factor when two bulbs were defective. That required a significantly more extensive effort. One tested bulb was placed in the first position while the second bulb cycled through the rest of the string. And then the whole process was repeated with the first good bulb in the second position and the second bulb continuing its travel down the line.

This year I came across one of those strings. And, sure enough, it wasn’t working. An odd sense of sentimental loyalty encouraged me to accept the challenge to see if it was salvageable.

The first time through revealed that it wasn’t going to be a simple solve. I was into my two-bulb mode when my husband started chiding me about wasting a lot of time for no good reason. (Don’t you just hate it when someone is rational and spoils all your fun???!!!)

When he saw that he wasn’t going to dissuade me from my errand, he suggested using an ohms meter. Wow! Technology to the rescue!!!

So I took the little probes and tested each of the protruding wires. Several got tossed (remembering to save the bases just in case...do you sense a little over-the-top frugality?). Then I put the proven ones back in the string. But all to no avail.

Obviously, there are additional variables beyond the bulbs. The sockets probably weren’t designed to last the quarter of a century that this string had survived. Neither are the wires terribly substantial. So any one of those could have scuttled the system.

Well, needless to say, I finally took my husband’s advice and threw the antique string in the trash, along with the defective bulbs. But in the meantime, I learned how to use an ohms meter and had a few genealogy-related thoughts.

How many times have we looked for a missing piece of an ancestor’s life’s string and simply can’t find it? How many times is that failure the result of a faulty “fact” which is occupying another location in the timeline?

Perhaps we would be wise—especially if this person is a pivotal one for our study—to go back and verify each “bulb” we have recorded. Is this a fun process? No! But if there is one (or...horrors...even two!) of those erroneous details, wouldn’t it be better to test them and get rid of the nonproductive clues than to continue to beat our heads against a wall that might not even be real?

I doubt that it will often become necessary to throw the whole string away (though some I’ve seen might be better off simply being started over from scratch). But we should at least be sure we haven’t plugged in defective information, because that will throw us off as we continue our search.

Use the “ohms meter” of your mind to be sure there is true connectivity in your understanding. After all, if the jolly man in the red-and-white suit (who knows everything!) has to make a list and check it twice, don't you think we'd be wise to follow his example?

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