Useful software

dreamstimefree_7966554_320x240Not directly related to genealogy, perhaps, but you might be surprised by how useful these programs can be.

Mindmapping

Mindmapping is a way of organising information or ideas. It is fantastic when when you are at the planning stage of a project for getting all your ideas down and organised. It’s very helpful for making decisions – you can get all the information you need down, all the fors and againsts, and everything becomes clearer. I don’t know why it works better than writing straight lists, but it does. I used to use it at university to plan essays. In those days I used pencil on a large drawing pad, or A3 paper. These days I use computer software, which allows changes and rearrangement more readily than pencil on paper.

There are a lot of different packages around, and after trying out a few I decided on Mindmeister. It is web-based, allowing collaboration with others, and it can also run off-line, which is quicker. The basic version is free to use and has limitations such as the number of mindmaps you can have at any one time. The premium version is a reasonable yearly fee that works out to something like $4 per month and allows unlimited mindmaps and offline access. Another free mindmap application, not web-based, is Freemind.

Photo albums

There are a lot of picture-hosting sites around that allow you to upload albums of photos to share with others. I use Picasa, one of the growing Google family of applications. I’ve mentioned Picasa before. It allows public sharing, which means anyone can see it, or private sharing, which involves a long key in the filename which you give to people you want to share it with.

This is a great way to share photos with relatives. You upload the album once, add photos as you wish, and send the link to your relatives. When you find a new cousin you can just send the link instead of sending photos as attachments. They can download the photos, and even though they may not be the same quality at least they have them and they can never be lost completely. Picasa is completely free.

Time tracking

Another web-based application I use is Harvest, to track my time and account for it. I create projects and tasks and start the timer when I am working on them. It also has an invoicing option. Although I started using it primarily for client work I also track my own genealogy research and general time-wasting. It is a very interesting exercise to do this for a week or two and find out exactly how much time you spend. Harvest has a number of monthly pricing packages.

A slightly different form of time-tracking that I’ve been experimenting with is RescueTime. This tracks exactly what you are doing on your computer – websites and applications – and gives you a list with time against each one. You can categorise them however you want; for example, I have MS Outlook and Gmail categorised as “email” and it is quite startling to see how long I spend in these applications every day. I can also set goals with warnings, so I can get a warning after I spent more than my allocated hour on email. I can also give each category a priority, from which my daily productivity is calculated. RescueTime is free.

What will you do when your computer crashes?

The longer you work with and read about computers, the more horror stories you read about what went wrong. Whether there is a happy end to the story or not depends on whether the owner of the computer backs up their data and how regularly they do it.

Here’s my story. This happened late last week. My laptop is almost three years old, so it’s getting on for a laptop. Laptops are different from desktops, they are built to be small, not to last. This laptop pretty well contains my life – my business, my family history, my photos, my university notes, everything.

On Thursday night I had finished creating the handouts for a workshop I was giving the next day and I had printed them out so that I could check them and write notes on them. I hadn’t yet copied them to my flash drive because I wanted to check them first. I was answering an email in Outlook, using Word, when there was a sudden and subliminal blue screen of death and then the laptop restarted itself. That’s weird, I thought, and waited for the restart, which seems to be a lot slower these days than when the laptop was new.

The restart gave me a screen I’d never seen before. I don’t remember the exact words any more but it said something along the lines of “your computer failed. If the failure was not the result of new software do this, otherwise do that”. It also offered the Safe Mode option. Well, I hadn’t installed anything new lately so I chose the “go back to the last safe configuration” option.

It got stuck on a blue screen of death, which I imagine was the same one that flashed at me before the restart. My registry was corrupted or missing. Missing! How could it be missing?

I tried the whole process again with the “just start up as normal” option and got the same result. I tried the “old configuration” option again. How often do we do that – do the same thing again hoping for a different result? Well, I got what I should have expected.

When I tried the next time I went into Safe Mode. I’m not entirely sure what Safe Mode means but it sounded comforting. Everything worked fine and it started up fairly normally. The first thing I did was to copy my handouts for the next day on my flash drive. Then I printed them all out again in case I couldn’t print them at the Society from the flash drive and had to photocopy them.

I then went to look at Outlook. Outlook wouldn’t open – my mail file was gone. Missing. Disappeared. It was quite a large file, as you’ll know if you’ve had yours for a while and you’ve been able to find it. It had years and years of emails in there, from family, friends, clients, the lot. Gone.

I had a backup on the laptop hard drive that was at least a year old. No good.

This is where the happiness of the outcome of the story is dependent on whether I had a backup and how old it was. I’m happy to say that my last backup was that morning and I was able to get my mail file back.

I have struggled with the backup question for years. I’ve tried CDs and flash drives (too much hassle to remember to do it) and backing up over the wireless network to the desktop. We bought a portable hard drive when my laptop hard drive was running out of space a few months ago with all the photos and music it had on it, but it doesn’t get used regularly for backups.

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I use an online backup service called Mozy, recommended by that prince among men, Dick Eastman on his blog. The backing up occurs at a schedule to suit me on the files and directories that I specify, without me having to do anything. That’s the crucial thing, for me. I don’t have to remember to do it and go looking for the media. It happens automatically. I’ve tested the restore part in the past when I stuffed up a database and it works just fine.

So I checked and sure enough, there was my Outlook mail file on the Mozy server, all 431MB of it. I clicked on restore and went to bed.

Unfortunately when I eagerly checked the next morning my mail file wasn’t restored – Mozy had lost the connection. It’s the internet, it happens. So I started the restore again, the message started counting down that it would take an hour and a half to restore, and I took my printed handouts and my flash drive and went to give my workshop.

When I got home, success!!! I had my mail file back, Outlook started up as though nothing had happened and started receiving emails. All in all I lost 12 hours worth of emails, from the last backup on the Thursday morning until the crash that evening.

Perhaps the loss of all your emails doesn’t sound that serious to you? We get too many emails as it is. Yes, I do get too many emails, but many of them are from clients telling me what they want and giving details of their ancestors, and many more are from relatives with information for me about my family. In some cases these emails are the sources of the data I have in my own family tree. I print these ones, yes, but I also keep them in Outlook so I can forward them to others and find them more readily in their family folders.

The potential loss of my email was a disaster for me and my business and my life. With only 12 hours worth lost I could email the people I knew I’d gotten emails from (yes, I had read them before they disappeared) to ask for the information again, and no harm was done to my professional relationships.

The moral of this story is obvious. We need a backup strategy that continues to work without us having to remember to do it. I use Mozy for the things that change constantly and the portable hard drive for things that don’t change much like my photo collection. There are other online backup services besides Mozy but it’s the one I like – it’s cheap and it works.

It’s free for up to 2GB of data and US$4.95 per month for unlimited data. It’s more expensive for business users. The security and peace-of-mind it gives is priceless.

Eventually all computers fail. Be ready when yours does.

How do you write your family history?

I was amused recently by a discussion on a genealogy forum about whether we can use family tree software or a word processor to write our family history. A family tree program such as The Master Genealogist or Family Tree Maker or one of the many other excellent programs can keep track of our names and dates but it cannot be used to write reports or stories for our relatives and others.

Most family tree programs will write a report for us if we click the right button. The sentences may be a bit stilted but they get the facts across. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples; here’s one:

Mary SMITH was born to John Smith and Elizabeth Bennett on 03 April 1856 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1861 census in 45 Shuttle Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1871 census in 21 Park Street, Glasgow, Scotland. She married John McDonald, the son of James McDonald and Jean Simpson, on 09 December 1878 in Glasgow, Scotland. She appeared in the 1881 census in Lewis Lane, Glasgow, Scotland. She immigrated on 26 July 1883 in Sydney, NSW, Australia. She died on 31 January 1903 in Penrith, NSW, Australia.

The children of Mary Smith were:

And so on and so on. It’s very uninspiring but it does get the facts across. Of course, it may be missing much of the story that you have stored elsewhere as notes.

There are alternatives. Some prefer to sit down and write the whole thing from scratch in a word processor such as Word. Depending on the skill of the writer it is likely to be a much more interesting read, and will probably contain much more of interest than just these bare facts, such as her nursing of local children, her other relatives on whose advice she moved to Australia, and the death of her eldest son on the voyage out here, and other such examples.

Many family tree programs allow the inclusion of this sort of information as well. The program that I am most familiar with is The Master Genealogist (TMG). It not only allows me to decide which facts will be included in a narrative, it allows me to determine how those facts will be reported. I can craft sentences to my own satisfaction and skill as a writer.

The discussion in the forum, as you can probably imagine, was about the ability of a family tree program to write narrative as well as you can yourself in a word processor. The answer, of course, is no. If the question is, can the program automatically generate prose that looks as though I wrote it myself from scratch, then of course the answer is no. You have to spend a great deal of time looking at the sentences it generates and changing them until they make sense, follow on smoothly from the sentence before, and do not appear as though they’ve been generated by a program. So who has written the prose in this case, you or the program? You have, of course.

TMG can do this, but it takes time, with a lot of trial and error. The most recent version of the program allows you to display a preview of the sentence when you are creating or updating a fact. You can update the sentence for that person only, or you can update a “master” that will use it everywhere that the same type of fact appears.

The only good reason that I can see for doing all of this work is if you are going to be generating multiple reports with at least some of the same people listed for different relatives. The same text will come out for each person no matter how often you run reports for different branches of your family. You may do some tweaking in your word processor once the report has been generated but you don’t have to write it from scratch every time.

If you are just going to do it once, as a professional genealogist might for a client, then it is not worth the extra work of setting up sentences in the family tree program, and you are better off doing it directly in the word processor.

Another advantage to using your family tree program is that it will probably generate a list of sources for you, and will cite them, if you wish, throughout the text. This is much less hassle than making sure you are quoting the right source with the right number every time you make a change, and keeping your superscripts correctly numbered.

That’s my two cents worth, and that was my take-away from the long discussion on the forum.

Reference:

APG-L Archives at http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/index/APG, February 2008.