So I took a DNA test…

…and the results were really surprising!

Okay, the 99% European part was not surprising. As far as I can tell, all of my ancestors came to the United States from either the Czech lands, the British Isles, or Scandanavia. But the proportions are WAY different from what I was expecting!

My sister took the same test, and she came up with 25% Czech and only 33% Scandinavian. To be honest, this test made me question if we even have the same father! But our dad also took the test, and according to Ancestry.com, the probability that we are both descended from him is nearly 100%. But wow—I had no idea siblings could be so genetically different!

Another big surprise was the complete lack of any Irish genetics at all! Seriously, it’s like I got everything in Europe except Irish and Jewish (my father, by the way, has European Jewish in his results). I always thought my bright red beard was from my Irish ancestors, but I guess I’ve got more in common with this guy:

I’m still trying to work my mind around it.

From what I can tell, my Scandinavian ancestors—from whom I may derive more than half of my genetics—came in multiple waves. The earliest were probably among the Viking invaders who colonized Britain and set up the Danelaw. This would explain how I got only an 8% estimate from Great Britain when nearly a third of my first generation immigrant ancestors (give or take) came from there. A bunch of others probably came over in the Norman invasion with William the Conqueror.

That’s all just speculation, though. What I do know for certain is that at least 25% of my direct line ancestors came from Denmark and Sweden after converting to Mormonism. Maybe most of my genetic ancestry comes through them? I don’t know.

The other interesting part of the test results is the Genetic Communities tab. The Mormon Pioneers community is a no-brainer, but according to Ancestry.com, the genetic link to the Early Settlers of the Lower Midwest & Virginia is actually stronger (40% confidence versus 20%). My sister didn’t even have that community in her results! I don’t think she had the Settlers of Middle Tennessee either.

From what I can tell, both of those communities come through my paternal grandmother, whose lines go waaaaaay back to before the Revolutionary War. Looks like my sister got the Czech genes from my Dad, while I got the early American ones.

There’s a lot of really really fascinating stuff to unpack here. Also, Ancestry.com has linked me to more than 900 other people who have taken their DNA test, all of whom are cousins!

The next step is to build a family tree on Ancestry.com to compare with the ones compiled by my cousins. This DNA-based collaboration could be really interesting, and potentially lead to some breakthroughs. Until now, I’ve primarily used Family Search for my research, which is basically a single cloud-based family tree that connects with everyone in the world, theoretically. However, my paternal grandmother’s lines on Family Search tend to become unreliable at around 1820 and before. It’s going to be a real project to clean all those lines up. Maybe Ancestry.com can help with that.

Cool stuff!

The thousand year view

How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?

It’s an easy question to dismiss. After all, how can one person possibly shape the course of history? Even if we accept the impact of certain great men, how can we have the hubris to think that we might one day join them?

But the truth is that our lives have more impact than we realize. Each one of us is literally a product of our ancestors. Their decisions, for good or for evil, have put us where we are today. We also have a hand in shaping the people we come into contact with. That impact can be felt through multiple degrees of separation—and how many degrees does it take to encompass the world?

In the year 1017, Europe was rising out of the ashes of the Viking age. Kievan Rus was ascendant in the east, vying with the Romans who dominated the religion and commerce of Europe (we know them today as the Byzantines). However, tensions were rising between Constantinople and the bishopric of Rome, where one of the last vestiges of the Roman state in the West would soon break communion and form the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, an apocalyptic Muslim death cult known as the Fatimids had swept from North Africa all the way to Baghdad, the cultural and scientific capital of the world. From the harsh steppe wilderness of central asia, the Seljuk Turks were building an empire that would save Baghdad from destruction, while in China, the Song dynasty had invented the first paper currency.

In short, it was a completely different world. How different will things look a thousand years from now?

By the year 3017, we will probably have established an independent colony on Mars. Other parts of the solar system will probably also be colonized, and we may have even begun our expansion to the stars. After all, faster than light starship drives are about as fantastic to us as cars, airplanes, and space stations would be for medieval serfs.

It is highly unlikely that the United States—or any other country, for that matter—will exist with its current borders. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of countries extant today will even exist at all. China is probably an exception, but let’s not forget that China is a civilization pretending to be a country.

Pessimists will say that there’s a good chance humanity won’t exist at all. They point to things like climate change, pandemics, and global war as challenges we may not overcome. But in the last millennium, we faced all those challenges and rose above them (little ice age, Mongol hordes, black plague). Same with the millennium before (extreme weather and crop failures of 535-536, Muslim conquests, plague of Justinian).

So how will your life impact the world a thousand years from now? What sort of impact do you want your life to have? How have the things you’ve done today brought you closer to leaving that legacy?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few weeks. I want to impact the world through my books, but it’s unlikely that most of my books will still exist. My family and descendants will, though. I want to leave them with the best foundation I can. Here’s how I plan to do it:

Step One: Master the Basics of Provident Living

Provident living is more than just learning how to do your laundry and keep up with the maintenance of your car. It’s learning how to live sustainably, with a degree of self-reliance that can see you and the ones you love through hard times. It’s all the stuff I’ve been writing about in the Self-Sufficient Writer blog series.

I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but there’s still a lot of progress left to make. Here are the next few steps I want to take in this area:

  1. Establish a rotating 90-day food storage for dry goods.
  2. Establish a herb garden.
  3. Expand food storage to canned goods.
  4. Buy a chest freezer and expand to meats and dairy.
  5. Plant a garden and expand to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  6. Learn how to can.
  7. Learn how to hunt.
  8. Begin keeping livestock (chickens, goats, etc).

A lot of these steps are going to have to wait until I have my own land, which brings us to:

Step Two: Live Debt-Free and Own the Place Where You Live

When you live on someone else’s land and owe them a portion of your labor, that’s a form of serfdom. In both historic and modern times, this has been the norm for the vast majority of people.

It shouldn’t be.

When my ancestors came from Europe to the United States, one of the first things they did was buy land. There was a reason for this. In the old country, they were serfs. They paid the corvée. They were not free.

They knew that unless they lived on land that they owned, in a home that was theirs, their children would not be free either.

We’ve enjoyed a century of prosperity in the United States. It’s led us to believe that home loans and mortgage payments are normal. They aren’t. When your home is the collateral for a loan you’ve taken from the bank, and you spend most of your adult life paying it back to the tune of 250%, that is a modern form of serfdom.

Until you own it outright, your house is a liability, not an asset. And in some places, true ownership is impossible. After all, if the government has the power to seize your house for non-payment of taxes, did you really ever “own” it to begin with?

It’s a similar thing with debt. All debt is a form of bondage. “Leverage” is when someone else has control over you or something that belongs to you. Unless you can get out from under it, you will never truly be free.

If most of your life is spent in serfdom and bondage, the thousand-year impact of your life will be muted.

The Habsburg dynasty started with a small castle on the top of a hill. From that starting point, the family went on to shape the development of Europe into the modern world. The castle was so important in that effort that the family took their name from it.

I know how to live debt-free. I’ve been doing it for several years. But I do not currently live in a place that I own. That is my overriding goal: to own the place where I live within ten years.

The government isn’t making it easy. Neither are the central banks. A decade of 0% interest rates has ravaged the middle class. As a direct consequence, home ownership rates are dropping to historic lows. 70% of Millennials have less than $1,000 saved for a down payment on a house, while at the same time, the helicopter money from the Fed has inflated a new housing bubble larger than the one that burst in ’08. In California, Google employees with six-figure incomes are living out of RVs because they can’t afford to buy a house.

It’s brutal. These are the same economic pressures that led to the rise of medieval serfdom in Europe. But there are also opportunities, for those who know how to take advantage of them. Which leads to:

Step Three: Build Multi-Generational Wealth

Poor people buy luxuries. Middle class people buy necessities. Rich people buy investments. If I want to leave something behind for my children and descendants, I need to master the skills of investing and managing wealth.

This goes back to the thousand-year view. The biggest impact I’m probably going to make on the world is going to be through my children and descendants. Raising them will be the most important investment I can ever make. I want to give them a life of opportunity, so that they, like me, can make a thousand-year impact on the world.

This is what my ancestors did for me. My Mormon ancestors crossed the plains in the Willie handcart company so that their descendants could grow up in Zion. My first-generation immigrant Czech ancestors invested in Texas farmland that still pays a small dividend to their descendants (greatly increased now because of oil royalties). There are many other countless others who made great sacrifices so that I could enjoy a life of privilege and opportunity. I’m sure that’s not unique to me.

We seem to have forgotten, here in the United States, how important it is to make sure that our children enjoy better lives than we have. To some generations much is given, while of others much is required. I fear that we are transitioning from the former to the latter. Nations are born stoic and die epicurean, surrounded by mountains of debt.

This is why it is so important to build wealth: not for your own personal consumption, but for the security of your children and descendants.

The most important investment you can make is in your education. If I’m going to develop these skills, that’s what I need to do: invest in my own financial education.

I also need to learn by experience, so I’m taking $100 of my book earnings each month and investing them. I’ll probably experience a couple of big losses, but that’s called paying tuition. The knowledge I gain from doing this will hopefully help to accomplish this goal: to build wealth that will bless the lives of my children and descendants for generations to come.

A lot of things fall into perspective when you take the thousand-year view. When you focus on the challenges of the present, it’s easy to become pessimistic, but when you take a clear-eyed look at the future—not just the immediate future, but the long-term future as well—you cannot help but take an optimistic view.

How will your life impact the world in a thousand years?

A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

A little family history

Holy crap, it’s been a long time since the last blog post. I wish I could say that things got busy, but the truth is that things just got disorganized. We’ll see how quickly I can put things back in order.

I spent most of last week either working a landscaping job or doing family history. Until now, I haven’t really blogged much about family history, but it’s something I’ve been working on fairly consistently for the past six months. My ultimate goal is to find all my first generation immigrant ancestors, which may well take a lifetime, but I’m off to a decent start:

JV fanThe fan chart shows six generations, starting with me at generation zero. I’ve outlined with a sharpie where all the lines hop the pond. My paternal grandfather’s side (blue) is all from the Czech lands, under the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My paternal grandmother’s side (green) goes way, way back to colonial America, with most of the lines still needing to be researched.

On my mom’s side, there are only three lines that go back to colonial America, and those are the ones I’ve been focused on. Joseph Moroni Wight goes back to Massachusetts and the Pilgrims, and has been fairly well documented back to the early 1600s. Nancy Jane Rose’s father was cursed by a Mormon apostle, which is just about the only thing we know about him. He’s a brick wall, but her mom’s side goes all the way back just like J.M. Wight.

The other line is Archibald Benjamin Stephenson, which has some colorful history including a brief stint with the Strangites. Unlike all my other Mormon lines, this one has not been thoroughly researched. I’m trying to find out why that is, and to push back further if possible.

My ultimate goal is to specialize in early American research, from the original colonies to the pre-Civil War era. With family history, you really have to be a jack of all trades and a master of one. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the basics, but I still have a lot of work to do before I develop any sort of mastery.

Of course, my work with family history isn’t going to replace or supersede my writing. If anything, it’s feeding into it. There are tons of interesting family stories I’m uncovering through this research, which makes for excellent writing material. For example, my 6th great uncle Lyman Wight once looked a murderous mob in the eyes and said: “shoot, and be damned.” I’m definitely working that into Gunslinger to the Stars.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. There’s a chance I may branch into historical fiction as I get more involved in family history. For now, all of the story ideas gnawing at my head are science fiction, but who knows what will happen in the future?

I’ll leave you with a little something from the Austrian connection in my family history: Roses of the South by Johann Strauss.

Giving Thanks

If there is any national holiday that is routinely overlooked, it is Thanksgiving. In our intensely consumer-driven society, Christmas looms ever greater, bringing with it the pseudo-holidays like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Each year, the jingles of commercialism threaten to drown out the message of gratitude which Thanksgiving celebrates.

So with that in mind, I intend to keep a proper Thanksgiving this year, and every year. It is a time for food, a time for family, and above all else a time to ponder on all the good things in our lives, and to give thanks for them.

According to tradition, the first Thanksgiving feast was made by the pilgrims in 1621, after their first good harvest in the New World. They had come to America seeking religious freedom, which had been denied them in Europe. Instead, they found a foreboding wilderness whose native inhabitants had been all but wiped out by the plague. There were no hospitals, no grocery stores, no internet—no one except an English-speaking indian named Squanto to help them, and no way to send for help across the wide, dark Atlantic.

It was a struggle just to survive. Many of them died. Those who lived saw the hand of Providence in their survival, and after a bounteous harvest ensured that they would have food for the winter, they dedicated a feast to acknowledging that Providence that had saved them.

In a lot of ways, the pilgrims are to America what the pioneers are to the Mormons. And interestingly enough, I have direct ancestors among the pilgrims as well as the Mormon pioneers. So for me, it’s more than just a nice story: it’s a part of my family history that makes me who I am. And I suspect the same is true for many other readers of this blog.

So in the spirit of that first Thanksgiving feast, here are the things that I am especially thankful for this year:

  • I am thankful for my near and extended family. Tolstoy was wrong when he said that all happy families are alike: every family has their own quirks, even the ones that hold together. I wouldn’t give up my family’s quirks for anything.
  • I am thankful to live in a free country, where my rights to life, liberty, and property are respected and honored. I am also thankful for the brave men and women of our armed forces who sacrifice so much to keep it free.
  • I am thankful for the opportunity to pursue a career as an author, and for the flexibility and control that indie publishing provides. I have no one but myself to blame for my failures, but my successes are all my own. Even after four years, it’s still exhilarating.
  • I am thankful for my readers, who have made and continue to make this publishing journey possible. I am thankful for all that they do that supports me, from buying and reading my books to sharing with friends, posting reviews, sending me fan mail, and connecting in a hundred other little ways that together make this whole thing worthwhile. Seriously, you guys are awesome. The only thing I could ask is to have more of you!