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.

Electronic Gadgets Part 3 – put your family tree on your phone

Well, I’ve done it, and I’m very happy. My family tree is on my phone and goes with me everywhere.

 How have I achieved this remarkable feat, you may ask? Read on!

 You may remember that I have been trying to replace 4 heavy little electronic gadgets with one or two. I bought a new phone, a Nokia E65, to replace my previous phone, my PDA and my MP3 player for those long trips out to repositories. My phone is wonderful, it has a microSD card, which I replaced with a bigger, 2GB, card on which I can store music and podcasts for those long trips on the train, and it has the capacity to store my family tree as well, so I don’t have to carry my PDA unless I know I will want to take lots of notes using the portable keyboard. The camera it has is inadequate for taking images of archived documents, but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. It also happily browses the web for me, so I can do anything from checking opening times of repositories to watching ABC TV for free while I am waiting!

So all I had to do was get my family tree onto my phone, so that if I find myself with time to spare or unexpected records become available I can quickly check to see what I need to find. All my names, places and dates would be readily available.

I use The Master Genealogist (TMG) to keep my family tree data in order, and I use the companion product Second Site to turn my data into web pages for the web or to publish on CDs. It seemed to me that if my phone could read html web pages it should be able to read html that was stored on the phone. SO that was what I did, I created a “website”, or a set of html pages, using Second Site, and uploaded them to my phone. I then created a bookmark so that I wouldn’t have to go delving into document folders to find the index page.

Of course, I had to tweak the settings a bit for use on a very small screen. I’m still experimenting with this, and if you try it for yourself, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Exclude exhibits. If you want pictures of your ancestors on your phone, put them somewhere else. Even a small photo will take up most of the screen, so you will have to scroll past it. Of course, you can use links to them instead of embedding them if you wish.
  • Set one person per page. This will create a lot of pages, which will take a long time to download to your phone initially, but I assumed that each file will load quicker when you select the person you want to view.
  • Use a very simple theme – lots of coloured boxes doesn’t translate well to the small screen, and takes longer to load.
  • Use a simple format that doesn’t put space in between columns, as do the 2- or 3-column formats. On the small phone screen you will see the first colum and then blank space, requiring a lot of scrolling across. I used the Narrative format.
  • Reduce the number of tag types according to what you think you may need when you are out and about.
  • Suppress memos if you have long stories in them.
  • An icon next to your direct ancesors and other important people makes them easier to find.
  • Skip the long description of the site that you’ve put on your real website, and the Compiler details. You know who you are, and no-one else will see it.

I am sure other things will occur to you as you go along.

Once you’ve uploaded the files to the phone, find the index.htm file open it to see how your website looks. You may need to do this a few times until you are as happy with what you see as you can be. Those of you with more html knowledge than me can probably restrict the size of the window – I will get to this one day, and in the meantime I don’t mind scrolling. Get the properties of the file, ie its filepath, and create a bookmark in your web browser so that you can go straight to it from your homepage. And there you are!

The phone-based website will never replace what I have on my laptop, so if I am going somewhere to do concentrated research on my own family I will take my laptop with me. I just use it when I am somewhere that I could look something up quickly, like a newspaper or a new set of probate indexes, that I wasn’t expecting and so I can check the date that g-g-grandfather So-and-so died.

And, of course, you need a reasonably “smart” phone to do this. One that will browse the web, and preferably has expandable memory. Give it a go and let us all know how it went.

My website is http://www.caroleriley.id.au/familyTree/index.htm.

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