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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Let Your Computer Do What It Does Best -- A Cautionary Tale for Genealogists

In a fight between you and your computer, your computer will always win. You cannot treat a computer like a spoiled or wilful child, it is a machine and it will always react consistently with its programming. You can rant and rave all you want, but it will just continue to do what it is told almost instantly. So back off and think rather than keep punching keys. Computers are terminally stupid but they are also highly complex devices.

The first thing to remember is that failure to save your work and power outages are not necessarily the fault of the computer or its programmers. As a user, you have the primary responsibility for maintaining your own work and backing up as necessary.

Now, what happens when we add in the internet? In effect, we are adding in the quirks and capabilities of an entire world of computers. Much of the time, the solution to a computer problem involves turning off the computer. If the software programs stop running or lock up, there are ways to get out of that situation. Turning off the machine or restarting is one of the most effective. But remember, if you do this, you will almost always lose whatever work was in progress.

If what I am writing is gibberish to you, then you need the most important ingredients of all: education and experience. What would happen to you if you had never driven a car before and you suddenly jumped in a got onto a major freeway? You would likely not stay alive very long. What makes you think you can operate a computer in a highly complex environment such as the internet without training and experience?

Of course, you can take the position that you are too old or too whatever to learn, but that is a cop out and sort of like my grandmother who refused to fly in an airplane but would take long bus rides across the country to visit her family. What about physical disabilities? You can easily find online examples of people who operate computers with severe difficulties such as blindness and paralysis. The problem is wanting to learn and overcoming a fear of failure.

I find that the greatest obstacles to using a computer are keyboarding skills and mouse or trackpad skills. I use a trackpad almost exclusively but it took me years to move from using a mouse exclusively to using a trackpad. Now, I can use both but prefer the trackpad. This is a physically learned skill and it took me a long time to learn and lots of practice. By the way, there are a number of free and commercially available programs that effectively teach typing or keyboarding skills.

What does a computer do best? That is a monumentally difficult question to completely answer. As genealogists, we are heavily involved in data and data is what computers are all about. So you would think that there would be a lot of our genealogical tasks that could be accomplished more effectively and quickly by a computer and you would be right. But we still have people copying things off the internet, for example, by hand onto paper. Hmm. Why would I do that? What purpose does it serve? When this does happen and I ask why they are copying something by hand, I usually get some excuse about remembering the information better or being more comfortable with handwriting.

Personally, I find writing by hand to be excruciating. But I can copy or reference by link almost anything I find almost instantaneously. If I were forced to write this blog and everything else by hand, I would do something else with my time.

Let me walk through a short research project and demonstrate what I mean by letting the computer do what it does best. Let's suppose I wanted to know where my great-grandfather was buried. There are lots of ways I could begin, but let's suppose I am going to let the computer and the internet do what they do best. Here is what I would do.

I would type exactly the following search terms into the address bar in my Chrome browser:

"Henry Martin Tanner" Arizona burial death

Less than half a second later, I would have the answer to my question.

Here is what I would get from the first item in the search list.

There are probably a hundred different ways to find this same information, but through practice and repetition, I have learned to extract the essence of my questions, put them into some keywords and type them into the computer in a matter of seconds.

How about another example. Let's suppose that I could not open a document on my computer. I looked at the document and it said it was a .svg type document. I type the words "define .svg" into my computer and here is what I get.

Now, I may need to find a program that will open the document, but that is merely another search on the internet.

Regularly, I watch genealogists struggle through their research when the answers they are looking for are just a few keystrokes away. Now, back to the keyboarding or typing issue. Where would I find one of these free typing tutor programs? Hmm. I made need to hunt-and-peck letters but I can search for "typing tutor free" will get a long list of programs to choose from.

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