Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Can Technology Save Genealogy or will it destroy it?

The title to this post is meant to be understood on a number of different levels. Considering all the world's serious problems, genealogical concerns could be considered to be "small potatoes" compared to the important issues of the day. Perhaps we should start viewing genealogy in the larger context of the preservation of our cultural heritage. During the past hundred years or so, we have seen massive efforts in the form of "cultural revolutions" that were aimed at transforming our world societies in a major way. On a huge scale, millions of people have been killed in the name of cultural cleansing. On a much smaller scale, localized ethnic and cultural groups have been effectively destroyed and absorbed into the dominant milieu. Preservation of our cultural and family history is fundamentally more than a casual pastime or hobby.

Most of those who live in the United States today have bought into the dominant "American Culture" with capital letters. One significant symptom of this adoption is the way that "Black Friday" celebrations have supplanted the traditional celebration of a treasured national holiday. For many in our country today, Thanksgiving is all about football and or shopping. It is no longer a day for quiet family gatherings and contemplation of our collective blessings. In most stores, for example, any tribute to Thanksgiving has long been overwhelmed with pre-Christmas decorations and sales.

In my last post entitled, "Can we "Twitter" family history," I touched briefly on the issue of preservation issue. But the issue of preservation is much greater than just a concern over the possibility of somehow capturing all of mindless blather of Facebook, it is a concern over the loss of basic values of family and home. Genealogy, by its very nature, looks backwards in time.

Back near the end of the U.S. Civil War on 10 November 1864, just before General William T. Sherman began his March to the Sea, leaving Atlanta in ruins, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short address to a group who had come to serenade the White House. He said, in part:
Human-nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.
Today, we are fighting a cultural battle instead of one consuming our entire nation in a shooting war. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution that is so much greater and far reaching than anything we have faced as a nation and by extension, faced as a world population, that threatens the very foundations of our diversity and culture. Genealogy ties us to the past, but that past is rapidly being supplanted by the immediacy of the present. The issues raised by a technology that can transform our interactions on a personal basis go far beyond simple issues of the preservation of present personal communications, they go to the heart of cultural values that are being reduced in substance to a tweet.

When I was a lot younger than I am today, one national concern was the impact of television on the rising generation. Well, I can say that impact of television is mild compared to impact of of smartphones connected to the Internet. On the one hand, genealogical research is reaping the benefits of the tidal wave of online resources but at the same time, the very basis of our interest in our ancestors is threatened by a society that puts little value on tradition and culture and more on the immediacy of instant messaging.

As we live through another holiday season, let's think of our own cultural and ancestral heritage. Let's take time to share that heritage with our families.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Can we "Twitter" family history?

When I was much younger than I am now, it was common to "condense" books. The Readers' Digest had a whole series of these condensed books. If condensed books were still too much for you to digest, then there were Classic Comics. Now we have Twitter where comments are reduced to 140 characters. Do we want to reduce genealogy to a tweet? Is that even possible?

The real issue is the ascendancy of social media as the communication venue of choice for much of the younger population. For the past year, I have been conducting oral interviews for preservation in the Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University. Some of these oral interviews lasted as long as eight or nine hours. I guess that this experience makes it difficult for me to reconcile the limitations of social networking content with the need to preserve an adequate record. In addition, I am looking at a stack of books about genealogy including several extensive family history books. Most of these family history books, chronicling many generations of selected families, exceed 500 pages in length. Most serious genealogical researchers find that they are very quickly buried in paper.

Are we willing to sacrifice the rich content of our family histories merely to accommodate the limited attention span of the Twitter generation? Perhaps, we should consider how we are going to preserve family history in the light of the popularity of the program such as Snapchat. Here is an explanation of Snapchat from Wikipedia:
Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as "Snaps". Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (as of September 2015, the range is from 1 to 10 seconds), after which Snapchat claims they will be deleted from the company's servers.
Certainly, we need to address the more serious question of how we are going to preserve the records of a generation of people whose main records in life are preserved in bits and pieces online. It might be helpful to realize that Snapchat reach the level of 6 billion videos per day in November 2015. Genealogists wring their hands over the loss of a few records in a courthouse, when we are losing 6 billion records a day after 10 seconds. Most users make no effort to resolve the problem of preserving their family records located on Facebook or other social media venues.

No matter what we think about social media, the issue of the evanescence of historical content is not new. We merely need to remember that all of the lifetime of conversations between our ancestors is forever lost. Perhaps, you have a copy of a telegraph message sent by an ancestor announcing a birth or death. The rarity of these messages is a graphic illustration of the problem faced in the future and reconstructing social media. Absent some spectacular method of reconstruction, I believe that virtually all of the content of the social media will be lost. For this reason alone, I would strongly limit efforts to expand the inclusion of some social media as a basis for "doing genealogy."

The reality of the present situation is that absent a concerted effort to move the content now presently available in the social media to a more permanent venue will result in its loss. Encouraging genealogical content to be shared in social media ignores this reality. We should be implementing pathways to allow those whose primary contact with the world is through social media to easily archive and preserve genealogically significant content. This is especially true where the content is primarily based on oral communication. We sometimes fail to recognize that much of the world's history is still contained in the minds of the family members. We need to be more proactive in capturing oral histories. We also need to recognize that much of social media falls in the same category as oral histories and will be lost absent our preservative efforts.

Can you do genealogy on a mobile device?

There is still a distinction between what we call mobile devices, such as tablets, smartphones and the more traditional desk top computers with a separate keyboard, pointing device and monitor. The main distinction is the operation systems involved with mobile devices and the desktop computers' operating systems. iOS does not function the same as Mac OS X. Is a laptop computer a mobile device or a desktop computer? The distinction is which operating system it uses.

Granted, there is a vast difference between using an application on a mobile device and sitting down to 27 inch or larger monitor attached to high-powered computer. But the real question is not the differences in the devices, but the limitations of the software and the memory of the mobile device. For example, here are the system requirements to run Adobe Photoshop.
  • Intel® Core 2 or AMD Athlon® 64 processor; 2 GHz or faster processor
  • Microsoft Windows 7 with Service Pack 1, Windows 8.1, or Windows 10
  • 2 GB of RAM (8 GB recommended)
  • 2 GB of available hard-disk space for 32-bit installation; 2.1 GB of available hard-disk space for 64-bit installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on removable flash storage devices)
  • 1024 x 768 display (1280x800 recommended) with 16-bit color and 512 MB of VRAM (1 GB recommended)*
  • OpenGL 2.0–capable system
  • Internet connection and registration are necessary for required software activation, validation of subscriptions, and access to online services.**
Mac OS
  • Multicore Intel processor with 64-bit support
  • Mac OS X v10.9, v10.10 (64-bit), or v10.11 (64-bit)
  • 2 GB of RAM (8 GB recommended)
  • 2 GB of available hard-disk space for installation; additional free space required during installation (cannot install on a volume that uses a case-sensitive file system or on removable flash storage devices)
  • 1024 x 768 display (1280x800 recommended) with 16-bit color and 512 MB of VRAM (1 GB recommended)*
  • OpenGL 2.0–capable system
  • Internet connection and registration are necessary for required software activation, membership validation, and access to online services.**
* 3D features will be disabled with less than 512MB
The bottom line is that although there has been a tremendous increase in the capabilities of mobile devices, there are still limitations in the input and capabilities of the mobile devices that make some kinds of work either unavailable or very difficult. 

Two new devices, the Apple iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 have engendered a great deal of online discussion about whether or not these devices will "replace" the more traditional laptop. The answer is mixed with some commentators adopting the new devices and others recognizing that although both are powerful mobile devices, they are not yet a substitute for the computing power and storage capacity of most laptop computers. 

I have been exploring the possibility of using one of the two devices instead of replacing my now aging MacBook Pro. So far, I have determined that I do not want to move to a mobile device. I am impressed with both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4, but not enough to replace my MacBook Pro. I also looked at the possibility of replacing my iMac with a MacBook Pro attached to a large monitor. This is an attractive alternative, but also suffers from some limitations, mainly the cost of the system and the limitations on internal storage.

What about the programs? Many of the popular online genealogy programs and even the desktop based programs have mobile apps. Some of these apps are very functional but still, adding extensive notes or attaching media are cumbersome and mostly difficult with the mobile apps. Granted, I am involved in a very extensive and intense usage of computers compared to the "average" user (whatever average is) but it would not be a good idea to base your decision to adopt a particular mode of input, mobile vs. desktop, without realizing that you may decided to become more involved in the future. 

My solution is to do what I already do. Use the mobile devices to their capacity. Use a laptop for presentations and travel and finally, rely primarily on powerful desktop computers for the majority of my work. All three have their advantages and disadvantages. Right now, it looks like I will keep my present iPad for a while until the new iPads have an operating system or programs that will not run on my dated machine. I will likely replace my MacBook Pro with a new model, mostly because my old one has been dropped so many times it is about ready to break. But I will be watching to see if there is a reason to replace my desktop iMac. It is still functional, but I see signs that it will be failing in the not-to-distant future. 

The final answer to the question in the title is that you can do many genealogical tasks on a mobile device. You may find that using an iPad Pro or Surface Pro 4 will be sufficient for the way you use a computer. You may also find that you need the additional capacity and storage of a desktop device. I suggest you try out the mobile devices as they become available and decide your own best solution. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Genealogical Tools You Cannot Ingnore

I recently taught a two-hour class on breaking down genealogical brick walls. In the course of teaching the class, I referred to a number of useful websites and online tools. As usual, I found that a majority of the attendees were unfamiliar with the programs I suggested using. In many cases, these programs take us well beyond the four large online database programs.

I am reminded of when I buy a furniture item from IKEA, the Swedish retailer with stores around the world. The assembly instructions always start out with a simple diagram of the tools you need to have before you start assembling the item. It is too bad that genealogy doesn't come with a set of instructions giving you a similar set of tools. Of course, genealogical tools are a lot harder to use and understand than a screwdriver and a hammer, but they are still just as necessary and useful.

The real issue is where to start and where to stop when talking about tools. For this reason, I think it is important to realize that no simple list will suffice. Another analogy is in order. Many years ago, I owned a Jaguar motor car. It was a very used car and the front steering bushings has disintegrated. We diagnosed the problem and set about replacing the bushings by removing the front idler arms. It doesn't really matter if you have no idea what I am talking about because the problem was that we could not separate the idler arms from the linkage to the wheels. If you care, here is a short explanation of the idler arm function.
The idler arm supports the end of the center link on the passengers side of the vehicle. The idler arm bolts to the vehicle's frame or subframe. Generally, an idler arm is attached between the opposite side of the center link from the Pitman arm and the vehicle's frame to hold the center link at the proper height. Idler arms are generally more vulnerable to wear than Pitman arms because of the pivot function built into them. If the idler arm is fitted with grease fittings, these should be lubricated with a grease gun at each oil change. See Wikipedia: Idler arm
 One of my friends had volunteered to help me with the project. We spent most of two days trying to separate the ball joint (pivot function) at the end of the part. Finally, we gave up, leaving the car sitting in my driveway. The next day, we were talking to another friend about the experience and he said, "Oh, you need a ball joint fork. I have one I can lend to you." Neither of us had ever seen or used a "ball joint fork."

Once we had the proper tool, we separated the ball joint and had the repair done in under an hour. This was a good lesson to learn. If you want to do a certain type of job, you need the right tools. This is also extremely important to genealogical research. Of course, there are an abundance of generalized genealogical tools out there but often, finding a particular ancestor requires a specialized tool. In these cases the rule is as follows:

Search for and make sure you have the proper research tools before you search for the ancestor.

This lesson has been brought home to me time and time again, both in my genealogical research and in doing car and household repairs. I have also found that most, in fact almost all, "brick wall" situations can be resolved by discovering the right genealogical tools and using them in the way they were intended. The best way to learn about these tools is to take the time to read a few good books about genealogical research. It also helps to attend a few classes and spend some time talking to good researchers.

I might mention that I know some outstanding genealogical researchers and I have benefited from their experience over the years. I might also point out that nearly all of these researchers are entirely unknown outside of their family and a few friends. I have gotten to know these folks because I have spent so much time in the libraries. Unless you happened to be related or know them personally, you would never know about their level of expertise. Their names are not on journal articles and they don't show up listed as presenters at conferences, but these people know how to do research and they can show you the right tools. When you find someone like this, you are doubly blessed.

I might also mention the help I received from taking independent study classes from Brigham Young University for five years. Study and learning at this level was invaluable to understanding what genealogy was all about.

We all have to start somewhere and I thought I would leave you with another list of books. These are the ones that got me started in understanding how to do genealogical research.

Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H Eakle. Ancestry’s Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy, 1985.
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1990.
Herber, Mark D, and Society of Genealogists (Great Britain). Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., Inc, 1998.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 2001.
Ryskamp, George R. Finding Your Hispanic Roots. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1997.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

Two Excellent Family History Blogs

When I started blogging years ago, I chose to blog about genealogy as a topic with an emphasis on technology and websites. Meanwhile two of my relatives, a cousin and a daughter, started separate blogs using a very similar format and providing high quality and very extensive research on my own family. These two blogs are examples of everything that is good about genealogical blogging. They provide extensive, professional level documentation and address conflicting issues in a fair and very even-handed manner. The format of their blogs is simple but they provide extensive index entries to every individual featured in their investigations.

You may assume that I am biased, but I commend both of these blogs as examples of what a family history centered blog can do to advance the amount of information available about a family. These two bloggers are in frequent contact with each other and complement each other in their writing.

It is about time that I publicly thanked both of these dedicated and wonderful bloggers for their contribution to our family.

The first of these blogs is Ancestral Ties by Bessie Morgan.

The second of these outstanding blogs is TheAncestorFiles by blogger Amy Thiriot.

You might want to review their extensive indexes just see if we all have common ancestors. You might also notice that both of them feature newspaper articles found in the course of continued searching for information about family members.

As an observation, many of the family focused blogs are outstanding examples of what good research and excellent writing are all about. Most of these blogs go unnoticed, even by family members and certainly by the larger commercial genealogical community even when the exhibit high levels of professionalism. I can only dream about writing as well as these two fine journalists.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

We have a Winner!!!

I would like to congratulate David Howard of Mesa, Arizona, the winner in my free ticket to RootsTech 2016 Contest. He found the earliest mention I made of RootsTech 2015. Way to go David.

The Contest is officially over. Thanks to all those who responded.

Privacy and your life online -- A Genealogist's Viewpoint

What I have to say about the concept of privacy will not make some people very happy. If you are one of those people, you should probably stop reading this post now, before you get upset. There, that is the warning.

Let me start this particular version of my views on privacy with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that you want total privacy. That is, you do not want anyone to know anything about you that you have not expressly given them permission to know. What are some of the things that you cannot do?
  • You cannot drive a car because you will have to provide information about yourself to the licensing agency.
  • You cannot use any kind of credit including using a credit card or debit card because you will have to provide information about yourself to the credit agencies.
  • You will not be able to have any bank accounts ditto.
  • You will not be able to register for school, use a telephone, receive or pay social security, buy real property, get a job or do anything else that would generate "public" information that would be shared with entities that would be more than willing to sell that information to anyone who wanted to pay the price.
  • You cannot buy a house in a town or city because people can drive by and see your address and exactly where you live.
  • You cannot join a church or any other type of social organization.
  • You cannot check a book out from the library, because you would have to supply some information about yourself to obtain a library card.
  • You cannot obtain medical treatment because either the hospital or the doctor will require you to fill out very personal forms before providing any services.
  • You would not be able to obtain any legal advice ditto.
  • You would have to shred or burn all your garbage because this is way that most of the information for identity thefts are obtained. 
  • Of course, it goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that you would have to stay strictly off of the Internet: no cell phones, no computers, not iPads etc. 
Obviously, this list can go on and on. Now almost all of the information generated in the examples  I outline in my hypothetical is freely available to anyone who wants to look for it online. There may be a few details that might be hard to discover, but generally for a few dollars, anyone with the right connections could find out everything that is on my hypothetical list and whole lot more.

What about social security numbers? That is a sticking point with a lot of people. Guess what? My U.S. Army Identification Number was the same as my Social Security Number. Guess what else? My Student Identification Number at the university was also my Social Security Number. Guess what else? Social Security Numbers are public. They are issued by the government and required to be used for a whole list of transactions. The issue that Social Security numbers can be wrongfully used is a problem created by and continued by the government. It just down right silly to have an identification number printed on a piece of cardboard that anyone can copy. The idea of keeping your Social Security number private is a farce.

If you are worried about other than your own privacy your are probably a doctor or a lawyer. Both of these professions have strict ethical rules about disclosing the private information about their clients or patients. But under some circumstances, both can be forced to reveal everything they know. Privacy is always conditional.

I guess my bottom line question is what do people think can be included in an online family tree that is not immediately and publicly available already online? Family trees do not contain Social Security numbers, they do not have medical information, they do not contain even the amount of information required for a library card. Birth dates are readily available online through birth announcements and many other sources, in fact, if you go to the hospital or for medical treatment of any kind, they will routinely ask you your birth date for identification purposes. Do you think family relationships, i.e. parents, grandparents etc. are private?

If you are worried about the privacy of your children or grandchildren, what right do you have to do so? Why do you think that doing family history and recording the information about families is a violation of your privacy? When you are worried about "privacy" you are expressing a manipulated fear that has been created to sell you something, usually a service to "protect" your privacy. If you have apocalyptic visions of dictators taking over the world and killing you and your family, perhaps you need to think about how maintaining your "privacy" is supposed to prevent that from happening.

Over the years, I have known several people who tried to live "off of the grid." They paid with cash and refused to pay income taxes. They usually ended up divorced (a very public event) and very unhappy. In Northern Arizona/Southern Utah, right on the border, we have a whole community of people who try to live "off the grid." Perhaps you have read something about the problems they presently have with that attitude?

Being on the Internet is like living in a huge, very dangerous city. But people still live in New York City and they also work and live on the Internet, like I do. Yes, if you live in New York, you might get mugged. I have several friends and relatives that have been attacked in large cities. You can either move out of the city or you can adjust to the risks involved in living there. The same thing with the Internet, apparently the 3 or so billion people on the Internet have decided that the risks of living in that huge "virtual" city are worth the benefits. Apparently, there are people who do not share that opinion. It is their loss.

If you really want privacy, I suggest that you move to a place where there is no running water, no electricity and is located away from any roads and start "living off the land" (if that is still possible). Otherwise, I suggest that you learn to adapt to a world where information is as prevalent as sunshine.