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

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is that website down right now?

I was doing what I usually do all day and into the night, writing a presentation or a blog post or whatever and I tried to access Here is what I got:

My reaction to this type of message is automatic. I try to log in again by retyping the URL. I got the same results. I tried again to make sure. Most of this was done so automatically, I did not really think about it. Then I opened where I have a link to and tried the link. Nothing happened. My next step was also automatic, but I had started thinking that maybe the website was really down.

I did a quick online Google search to see if my inability to connect was local or general. There are websites that watch that sort of thing. One is "Is It Down Right Now?" Here is a screenshot of the report.

Yes, the website had been down for about 33 minutes. What do I do then? Start doing something else, of course.

By the way, it came up in about two more minutes of waiting.

The Family History Guide looking for Sponsorships

The Family History Guide has become extremely popular since it was incorporated in the Portal and made available in all of the world-wide Family History Centers. Because I immediately saw the value of the website, I have been involved in its promotion since very early in its development. The Family History Guide has been incorporated as low-profit limited liability company or L3C. The L3C is legal form of business entity in the United States that was created to bridge the gap between non-profit and for-profit investing by providing a structure that facilitates investments in socially beneficial, for-profit ventures by simplifying compliance with Internal Revenue Service rules for program-related investments, a type of investment that private foundations are allowed to make. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on Low-profit limited liability companies:
The L3C is designed to make it easier for socially oriented businesses to attract investments from foundations and additional money from private investors.[8]Unlike the traditional LLC, the L3C’s articles of organization are required by law to mirror the federal tax standards for program-related investing. [9] A program-related investment (PRI) is one way in which foundations can satisfy their obligation under the Tax Reform Act of 1969 to distribute at least 5% of their assets every year for charitable purposes.[7] While foundations usually meet this requirement through grants, investments in L3Cs and charities that qualify as PRIs can also fulfill the requirement while allowing the foundations to receive a return.[10]
In short, The Family History Guide is now actively seeking sponsorships. Quoting from a recent notice sent to me,
This is your special invitation … to help thousands of people around the world find and connect with their family roots, and have your logo and website link placed on tens of thousands of desktops, tablets and other devices in over 140 countries! 
Let me introduce myself - I'm Bob Ives, COO and co-founder of The Family History Guide, L3C. We are a low-profit company dedicated to one mission: to greatly increase the number of people actively involved in family history worldwide, and to make everyone’s family history journey easier, more efficient, and more rewarding. Family history involvement builds a stronger sense of identity, culture, and history, and we are proud to be at the forefront of building this involvement worldwide. We have no paid employees and are staffed with volunteers who share our vision. We accomplish our mission by providing a free website, The Family History Guide
with a unique just-in-time learning model that is revolutionizing how people find and connect to their roots.

In keeping with our mission statement, we have no advertising on our website. Still, we have ongoing business expenses that must be met. To address these needs, we are introducing our Sponsorship Campaign, which enables individuals, companies and organizations to donate to this important cause, as well as benefit from PRI's (Program-Related Investments) and tax incentives such as advertising deductions.
To explain how this will work, here is a listed description of the process, again from the notice sent to me.
The Family History Guide is
  • A free website visited by people in over 140 countries.
  • On the main Family Search portal page in over 4,800 Family History Centers and libraries, on over 10,000 desktops and thousands more personal computers worldwide.
  • A semi-finalist in the RootsTech 2016 Innovator Showdown.
  • Used for training family history consultants at the BYU Family History Library, the Riverton, Utah Family History Library, and many other libraries across the U.S.
  • A partner with Family Search, the largest free family history company in the world, and part of the Family Search App Gallery.
  • Part of an L3C company that qualifies to receive PRI's from foundations and other organizations.
  • A website where your logo may qualify as an advertising expenditure for your organization, company, or foundation.
  • A company of all volunteers who do not receive compensation for their time or expenses.
How you can get involved and help this worldwide effort 
You or your organization can help us reach our goal of continuing to provide a free website that enables more people, worldwide, to succeed in family history. Your donation will receive special recognition on the The Family History Guide website: your logo will be prominently displayed and directly linked back to you, plus other benefits depending upon your participation level. 
Become an individual donor, partner or sponsor with The Family History Guide today! 
Click here to get started.
I do not usually get directly involved in fundraising efforts, but in this case, I am making an exception because of the inherent value of this free program.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Using Smart Technology to Jump-Start Your Genealogical Research: Part Two

Automated Record Hints

One of the most impressive, new genealogical technologies to emerge in the last few years has been the advent of automated searches that provide extensive record hints matching the individuals in your online family tree with original sources. Included in this expansive technology is the ability to suggest connections with others that share the same ancestors in their own family trees. All four of the large, online genealogical database programs have implemented this new technology and even extended it to some of their subsidiary websites.

This rapidly developing technology has revolutionized the process of finding information about ancestral families for many users, particularly those with families from the United States, the British Isles and Canada. As the technology develops and more and more of the records are included in the automated searches, the process will become even more valuable to the genealogical researcher. In may cases today, especially for those whose more recent ancestors lived in the United States, sources are found identifying relatives back about 150 to 200 years with great accuracy.

This outstanding technology began with record hints from called the "Shaky Leaf Hints." Significant, ground-breaking improvements to the accuracy and coverage of the technology were implemented by and subsequently, the other websites increased both the incidence and accuracy of their own record hints. The technology is not always 100% accurate and does take some level of evaluation by the user, but by and large it has measurably increased the overall accuracy of the content of the online family trees.

The essential ingredient to facilitate this new technology is that the user enter some basic information into an online family tree associated with each website. Acceptance of the record hints has been dependent on the level of sophistication of the users. Many of the users of the websites have failed to add the sources to their own entries even though they are automatically provided and the process of adding the sources is relatively simple. There is also a significant level of resistance to the idea of maintaining more than one database, so if the user has a family tree in one program, there is a level of resistance in establishing another family tree in another program.

Another rather interesting issue with the implementation of the record hints is the surprising and mistaken impression that many people seem to have that all of the large online, genealogical database programs have the same records. Each of the websites has its own unique records. Of course, the basic limiting factor of the record hint technology is that it only works with indexed records and each of the websites is limited to the records on the website. Fortunately for the researcher, the number of indexed records is increasing extremely rapidly.

The method of marking the existence of a record hint varies with each of the websites. Here are some screenshots showing the various markers in each of the programs with an arrow indicating the icon indicating a record hint.

The way the record hints are handled by each of the programs varies, but the principle is the same. The program suggests a record hint and the user is then called upon to evaluate the suggested source and attach it with the new information or individuals to the user's online family tree in that particular program. The one remaining challenge is the ability to adequately move the information found from one family tree to one in another program. There are a few possibilities but by and large source must be copies one at a time and the information added to the target family tree. The user has to learn each of the methods of attaching and utilizing the information found for each website.

In some cases, the number of record hints can be overwhelming but this only points out the fact that the technology is advancing rapidly and the amount of information being made available is impressive.

Here is the previous post in this series.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Researching Beyond Census Records

It is so simple and reassuring to find someone in a U.S. Census record. Between 1850 and 1940, it is almost a given that anyone in the U.S. can be found with a minimum of effort. Oh, you say, until you can't find them. Well, I found my Great-Uncle Allen Benedict Tanner and his family in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census by the simple expediency of reading through every page of the Census record in the small community of Beaver, Beaver, Utah. By the way, there are only 36 pages in that particular enumeration district, so it only took a few minutes to find the family.

The problem is that when you can't find your family in the U.S. Census where do you go? What do you do? What if you also strike out with searches on and I should mention that when I tried to search on after I found the record by looking at every page, I did a search for "Allen B Tanner" in Beaver, Beaver, Utah and the search engine failed to find him or his family. So had I not already found him through the page by page search, I might have come to the conclusion that "he wasn't in the 1880 U.S. Census." This points out another important rule: always search the original records when they are available.

In short, doing genealogical research is a lot more than census searches and finding a family in the U.S. Census is sometimes a lot more than a census search also. Did I mention that I found my Grandfather in the 1920 U.S. Census when he was indexed as "Tamer" rather than "Tanner?"

The suggestion here is that there are lots of records about your ancestors other than just those in the U.S. Census. For example, Allen Benedict Tanner has twenty sources attached and I know that the number is only a fraction of the total number of places this particular Tanner family is mentioned in records. Just looking down the list already in the Family Tree, I could add in about three times that many sources if I had the time and inclination. But you say, so what? Who cares? And what difference does it make if there is one source or fifty?

Genealogical research is not a numbers game. We are not out to set some kind of record for adding sources to a family. There are no extra points for each source added. So why not stop with the one U.S. Census record or so that establishes the family and leave it at that?

By the way, this is a serious question and one that is posed to me regularly. I am regularly asked "How many sources is enough to add to someone in the Family Tree." My answer is always the same, "All of them." Just yesterday, I was getting frustrated with not being able to find a certain family in either or I did a general Google search and found an extensive biography of the father of the family with a long list of sources.

Is there a specific place to go if you cannot find an individual ancestor or family in the U.S. Census? Not really. The general rule is begin your search with marriage records as they are the most reliably recorded type of record. I eventually found yesterday's difficult family in cemetery records. I might also point out that you aren't through searching until you have looked at every type of record listed in the Research Wiki and the Catalog. I mean every single type of record listed. But usually, you can focus on church records or civil records to find most families.

When things get tough, the tough get going.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How accurate are historical records?

A recent local news article caught my eye, "Roy woman struggling to prove she's alive after government declares her dead." This story highlights a common problem faced by genealogists: conflicting source records. The Utah woman in the article has been fighting with the U.S. Government for over two years when the Social Security Administration reported her dead and her bank and other entities began to close accounts and try to collect for overpayment.

From the genealogical standpoint, we commonly find names misspelled, dates incorrectly recorded, people wrongly identified and myriad of other errors that cannot be corrected and must be dealt with. The list of possible errors also involves simple issues such as the transposition of numbers in dates to the intentional understatement or overstatement of ages. It is also not too uncommon to find where record keepers were faced with or created outright lies.

One of the most common issues and iconic for genealogists, is the fact that Census records are routinely off at least one year in the estimated age and birth date of the people listed. This is caused by the fact that the Census records are officially calculated from the "date of the census" which may affect the calculation of the age or birth date due to the actual date of birth being either before or after the official census date.

Are you bothered by the inconsistency in the records? Do you ignore the fact that the records are inconsistent and adopt one record as the "correct" source or can you live with the inconsistency? Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said, in part, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." Perhaps, we need to try to avoid foolish consistency and realize that historical records can be contradictory.

Let's suppose that you find that a newspaper obituary and the grave marker disagree on the date of death. What do you do? Is there really any possibility or controversy as in the news article above, that the person is really dead? If not, then from a genealogical standpoint, what is the issue? One of the most important aspects of any form of historical research is to increase the breadth of our searches along with the depth. In the case I just cited, if the death date is crucial to identifying the right individual or for some other reason, then the answer is to do more research and find the will or the probate case in the court records. But if the actual date does not matter then why spend time trying to fight with inconsistency?

Too many times, I find people who are obsessed with finding a particular date. I have one friend who has spent a huge amount of time trying to find a death date and place for a relative. Perhaps it is time to realize that he is dead and get on with other research. It is always possible that the date and place of death were never recorded for some reason such as the fact that he was lost at sea or wandered off into the desert or mountains and died.

This whole issue points out the need for research that includes more sources than just one. There is wisdom in the admonition that in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. See 1 Timothy 5:19.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Can You Hear Me? Can You Hear Me? Comments on VR

By I,, CC BY-SA 3.0,
It is presumed that voice recognition software will replace the keyboard and the manual operating systems of all the world's computers in the future. Well, they have also been predicting flying cars for about 75 years or so and we are really no closer to that reality than we were back in 1940 when this photo was taken.

By Kobel Feature Photos (Frankfort, Indiana) / State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Public Domain,
 The problem with flying cars are similar to those with voice recognition. You can make one, but what you really need is a whole infrastructure of support and a system where the product can be used effectively. You might think that VR or voice recognition is a panacea for those who cannot adequately use a keyboard or a tracking device, i.e. mouse or trackpad. But in reality, the keyboard has one thing that VR has not and that is the ability to make quick and accurate edits of typos.

Even if VR becomes so ubiquitous that it replaces the manual controls of common appliances, the range of commands needed to operate, say a microwave oven, are so simple and limited as to make the problem somewhat trivial. Genealogy is not simple and what we type and record is far from the directions to heat some soup for 30 seconds.

As I have written in the past, I have been using VR for years off and on. There have been tremendous advances made in the accuracy and utility of the products, but for genealogists, we are just about at the very beginning of the development. Let me demonstrate the problem. Here is a rather simple quote from my family tree.
Thomas Parkinson 
12 December 1830
Farcet, Huntingdonshire, England, United Kingdom

12 January 1831
Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, England

3 March 1906
Beaver, Beaver, Utah, United States

5 March 1906
Mountain View Cemetery, Beaver, Beaver, Utah, United States
Not complicated at all, is it? Now, using a very sophisticated VR program, without making any corrections, here is what I get:
Thomas Parkinson 
12 December 1830
Carson, Huntingdon Shire, England, United Kingdom 
12 January 1831
Ramsey, Huntington Shire, England 
3 March 1906
Fever, Beaver, Utah, United States 
5 March 1906 
Mountain View Cemetery, beaver, beaver, Utah, United States
Now, there are commands that could resolve a few of these issues, but the reality is that I can accurately type the entire entry in much less time, with a higher degree of accuracy than I am willing to spend trying to get the VR program to make all the adjustments and correct all the bad entries. It does not really help me to go back to the keyboard and try to correct the entries. The reality is that while I am typing, I am making a lot of mistakes. Most of those I can correct with one or two keystrokes. But with VR, I am forced to use a whole bevy of commands, most of which will end up making it ever harder to correct the final product. 

If I were simply writing a letter or an email, I could use the VR program and probable get as close as I needed to with only a few minor corrections, but that is not what I do all day. My operation of the computer involves a highly complex set of instructions that include a lot of clicking and dragging items from one place on the screen to another. To give oral commands to do something as simple as dragging and dropping an image and then formatting it, would require many commands and my frustration level would be enormous.

Even if I had a quick and easy way to use VR to move from field to field in a genealogy program, how long would it take me to train the program correctly for every place name, i.e. changing from Huntingdon Shire to Huntingdonshire? As it is, I have an extra line feed in the second Burial entry above, that I cannot get rid of using the keyboard, how could I do the same thing with oral commands if I cannot do it with my keyboard and trackpad? To correct that formatting issue, I have to go into the HTML and edit it directly.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had a car that gave audible, voice warnings. One particularly annoying warning said, "Your door is ajar." Of course, every time the car said that, we both said, "The door isn't a jar, it is a door." But you can begin to see the problem. Language usage is highly complex and even if computers get to the point of functioning like they do in some movies, they will still be annoying at times and blatantly wrong at other times, just as humans are.

VR is a wonderful tool but we have to realize that just because something is useful in one way or another does not mean that it the universal replacement for everything. I recall the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Scotty is confronted with an old Macintosh computer. He talks to it and of course it doesn't respond, so he says "The keyboard, how quaint." But I am guessing that he would have had a very difficult time entering some complex commands solely using VR as demonstrated by the furious typing that ensues in the movie. By the way, the old Mac would not have the computer power to process the commands that Scotty was trying to enter.

In making these observations, I am not disparaging VR. Here is the last paragraph of my post, entirely using VR.

As genealogist, we need to be open to new technology and adapted [adapt it] to our working methodology. We also need to realize, that not all new technology translates into advantages for accomplishing our genealogical goals. Voice recognition is a powerful tool but it is not quite ready to take over the entire child [field] of interfacing with a computer.

Now, after dictating that paragraph, I went back and made the corrections which are shown in brackets and in red. The errors were real words and not caught by the spell checking capability of my computer. When the spell checker or, in this case, VR substitutes real words, making the corrections much more difficult to detect the typos and make the corrections.

My last note. VR usually refers to "voice recognition." But recently, it is coming to more commonly refer to "virtual reality." Even this type of confusion makes using both types of VR difficult. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Looking back to the origins of Genealogy's Star

My first blog post on Genealogy's Star blog was two short paragraphs about the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

Since that small beginning, I have written and published 4468 posts and have kept writing now for almost eight years. When I wrote that first short blog post, I had no idea how extensively writing online would affect my life. Genealogically speaking, I have come a long way since that first, very tentative, offering.

Probably the most interesting part of the whole experience has been meeting so many wonderful people. Of course, if you know me, you realize that if I am not writing, I am probably talking. So one of the spinoffs of the writing experience has been teaching a steady stream of classes and presentations.

As an additional benefit of writing this blog, I have been asked to participate as a blogger at the annual RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now, that we live in Provo, about an hour south of downtown Salt Lake, it is not quite as much of a production to attend the conference, but it is still a highlight of the year. My participation has turned out to involve the entire week of the conference, starting with the Brigham Young University Family History Technology Workshop on Tuesday and the Innovator Summit on Wednesday. This next year will probably be even more interesting than past years. The past two years, I have concentrated more on writing and meeting than presenting, but I have still had a constant schedule of meetings during all of the conferences and parts.

Just as a side note, you may want to go to and keep updated on the conference scheduled for February 8 - 11, 2017. Hotel rooms tend to fill up for the conference and it is a good idea to plan way ahead.

Of course, the most dramatic change that has come in part from my involvement in genealogy is our move to Provo and my involvement with the Brigham Young University Family History Library. I have seven additional live, online webinars to present in September, 2016 and the spin off of this constant stream of webinars has been even more far reaching than the blogs. By posting the webinars on Google's YouTube on the BYU Family History Library Channel, I have seen a steady increase in the impact of this more immediate media outlet.

One interesting side effect of moving to Provo was that I almost completely stopped being invited to speak at conferences around the U.S. and Canada. In reality, that turned out to be a benefit, because now, I spend my time writing presentations for video output. But I have been involved in a lot of local conferences, in fact, both my wife and I are teach three classes each this Saturday for the Provo Grandview South Stake here in Provo.

Now another word about the name of this blog. If I had it to do over again, I would probably choose a different name. I was mostly thinking of an analogy to a guiding star or the sense that the term "star" is used by newspapers, particularly in Arizona. But I soon was embarrassed to realize my choice was somewhat presumptuous, but by that time, I was committed with the name and ran with it. Well, here we are, still writing away.

You would think I would run out of topics, but in reality I have long lists of topics to write on that I haven't had time to get to yet. When I run out of things to say, I will let you know.