Mar 17, 2011

Genealogy Conference Ideas

The topic for today's Open Thread Thursday at GeneaBloggers is building a better genealogy conference. Since RootsTech, lots of bloggers have posted reviews with their own ideas, so I'll just suggest a few of my own:

Conference scheduling
  • The Morrison County Genealogical Society is sponsoring a one day conference in Little Falls, MN on Apr 30. Unfortunately, that's the same time as a two day conference by the Minnesota Genealogical Society (MGS): British Isles Family History Days, Apr 29-30. It's possible they scheduled it before MGS, but I wouldn't know, since there's no information online. The conference fliers don't even have an e-mail address. I know we study the past, but what century are we living in?
  • Another consideration is what else is happening during the scheduled dates. Holding RootsTech in February was perfect for people who also wanted to conduct research at the Family History Library (FHL). There were virtually no lines for microfilm readers or scanners. I'd anticipated lots more crowds during a major genealogy conference, but was pleasantly surprised. I once attended a gigantic conference in St Louis during the middle of the work week. It so overwhelmed the downtown area, the scheduled time for lunch was entirely inadequate.
Session scheduling
  • This is almost an unsolvable problem (NP-hard for CS geeks), but there are things conference organizers can do to optimize scheduling. Some people try to sample a wide variety of sessions at conferences. Others attend every session on a specific topic, which are sometimes organized in formal tracks. I tend to the former, but the same scheme can help people of both persuasions. At past conferences, there were a few time periods with multiple sessions I was interested in, while other periods had few or none. Sessions of a similar nature should be spread out over different days and time periods. Popular sessions can even be repeated, if there's sufficient demand. Then, it's easier to choose between competing sessions.
Exhibit area
  • Most large conferences I've attended have separate prices for people attending one day, multiple days, or just entrance to the exhibit area (without attending any of the sessions). At RootsTech, the exhibit area was completely free for the public! I imagine they had major support from the larger vendors or FamilySearch itself. I don't expect that to be duplicated by many other conferences, but there should at least be a reduced price. The more people who can be reached, the better. I honestly don't know how well past genealogy conferences have done in this respect, but I have experience from other conferences I've attended, worked or volunteered at.
  • Prices for booths should also be tiered. That's already done to some extent by the size or number of spaces reserved, but they should also be differentiated by the nature of the exhibitors. I've been to conferences in the past that essentially shut out non-profits by charging them the same price as commercial vendors. We need to recognize the significant contributions made by volunteer organizations, and the limited resources they have at their disposal. I've also seen past conferences where non-profits' booths were sponsored by major vendors. Since they might not have the idea to approach vendors for support, conferences could solicit contributions on their behalf. It's win-win situation: more participation by volunteer organizations, and advertising and community goodwill for the vendor.
  • It could also be helpful to charge different prices for vendors making sales at the conference. Big businesses already budget for exhibits at the various trade shows and conferences. But many small businesses can't afford booths at multiple conferences, especially if there's travel involved. However, they might be willing to pay a commission to the conference on each sale conducted there.
Finally, to beat a dead horse, the conference program needs to be published far enough in advance, and be sufficiently detailed. Upcoming conferences like NGS and FGS seem to be doing a pretty good job at communication. They've both got highly detailed session information on either their websites or downloadable brochures, and even post on conference blogs already.

Mar 13, 2011

Finding Old Books in Private Collections

Dick Eastman has a post today about an online book cataloging website. I'm not a Plus Edition subscriber, so I can't see all the way to the punchline. But I have a sneaking suspicion he's talking about LibraryThing, which I mentioned in an earlier post on crowdsourcing. I won't repeat what I wrote earlier, but I absolutely love LibraryThing. A feature I didn't mention before was their groups–one of many social aspects to the website. Like any online forum, some groups are more active than others. There's one specifically by and for genealogists, called Genealogy@LT.

The subtitle of Dick's post is "How to Find Someone Who Has the Book You Seek." I imagine the purpose is for genealogists who are searching for obscure, out-of-print titles that might have information about ancestors they're researching. When they can't find the book anywhere else, there's always the chance somebody who owns it has cataloged it on LibraryThing or another, similar website. While I don't own many books with useful genealogical records, my collection of history books is quite large. Since this is a semi-anonymous blog, I'm not connecting it with my various online personas. However, if anyone were to find a book on LibraryThing they're interested in, drop a note to one of the people who added the book, by commenting on their profile. In my experience, LibraryThing members are usually receptive to questions about their books. I'm sure many would be more than happy to do a look-up for you.

Mar 11, 2011

The Value of Apple

I hate Microsoft. They sell bug-ridden, unsecured, shoddy software, and their monopolistic, unethical business practices are borderline criminal. I quit using Windows as my primary operating system (OS) in 1999, except for at work, where I had no choice. I switched to using Linux as my day-to-day OS, which I'd been toying with for a few years by then. Keeping a Linux system up-to-date took some effort. I hand edited most text configuration files, and compiled almost everything from source code. It was even less user-friendly at the time than its undeserved reputation now, but it forced me to learn.

However, a few years later, I was in the market for a laptop. After lots of research, I ended up buying a 12" Apple PowerBook, and started using MacOS X as my desktop OS. (I still use Linux on servers.) Like Linux, MacOS X is essentially Unix under the hood. All that power and security, but with a gorgeous UI and much easier maintenance. Since then, I've also bought a 20 GB iPod Classic, and replaced the PowerBook with a 13" MacBook.

Now, after reading this article from the New York Times, I almost (but not quite) regret my decision to buy Apple. It tells about a website that calculates the current value, if you'd bought Apple stock, instead of various Apple products. It's not completely accurate, since it only lists the base price, without accessories or upgrades, on the date each product was initially released. Some of my Apple buys were months after the release, and both of the laptops I bought had upgraded options.

Regardless, the analogy is still kind of depressing. The base price for the 12" PowerBook when it was released in 2005 was $1499. If I'd bought Apple stock instead, I'd be $10,558 richer! When the 20 GB iPod was released in 2004, it retailed for $299–the same price I paid a year later. In Apple stock, it'd now be worth $7,328. I waited to buy my MacBook until they'd updated the entire line, so it was less than one month after its release date in 2008, with a base price of $1299. Now that's worth more than double in Apple stock, $2,953.

Although my iPod gave up the ghost a couple years ago, my Apple laptops have served me well. I wouldn't buy any other brand. But if I'd spent the money instead on Apple stock, that $3097 would now be worth $20,839, almost a seven-fold increase in just a few years!

Mar 10, 2011

Unusual Sources for Family History

My great-grandfather, Charles Lagergren, was one of the last blacksmiths in central Minnesota. I've known that ever since I can remember, though he died many years before I was born. Although I have photos of him, I wish I could find one of him working in his shop. (There is a painting, hanging in my parents' house, that my grandfather commissioned. [right]) The blacksmith trade died out long ago. It was doomed as soon as automobiles became popular. True, there are still metalworkers and machine shops who perform the same basic services, but they're usually tucked away in industrial areas. Blacksmith shops, along with livery stables, used to be downtown, in the middle of everything. Now I'm no Luddite, lamenting the loss of the olden days, or confused by all this newfangled technology. I just wish I could see how people lived back then. Modern conveniences make life so easy, we take a lot for granted.

The reason I bring all this up is a fortuitous find I made on a visit to the county history museum where he, and several of my ancestors, lived. I knew they had surname files, tax and probate records, and the typical sources county historical societies archive. But in the Lagergren surname file, besides clipped obituaries and other miscellanea, were three invoices. Not something your average genealogist would get excited about, but interesting to me regardless. The only reason they were archived is they were for work performed on behalf of the town cemetery. I imagine at some point the cemetery got rid of years worth of old business correspondence and other minutiae piling up. Then somebody, somehow had the foresight to deposit it with the historical society. Luckily, his shop name was on the invoice, and it got filed where I was able to find it.

Again, there's not really any significant information for genealogists on the invoices. I already knew his name, and that he was living and working there during that time period. I have countless records with that and more relevant information. One invoice is undated, the others are from 1938 and 1939. They each detail the services rendered: sharpening mower blades, sharpening picks, etc. I'll include just one example, from 1938. It's dated March 3, and appears to be an invoice for the entire previous year's work. It only cost 20¢ then to sharpen a pick, and the entire bill for the year was a whopping $6.45! My how things have changed.

One reason I called this blog Family Historian, vice Genealogist, was a distinction I've seen others make before, and becoming increasingly more common. Some people researching their family trees don't seem to be interested in the actual people. They're merely trying to extend their pedigree as far back as possible or to connect their lineage with somebody famous, often with little evidence. Genealogy is part of what I do, but there's a whole lot more to it than pedigree charts and family group sheets. I've found myself reading more history books in areas I might not have otherwise, based on new finds in my research. It's all part of an effort to understand my relatives, and not just my direct ancestors.

I love the title one of the current stars of the genealogy world, Megan Smolenyak, gave ger website: Honoring Our Ancestors. We should always remember our ancestors used to be living, breathing human beings. Unfortunately, some genealogists only seem to be collecting them, like stamps or butterflies. I believe it's a disservice to our families if we don't also learn the context in which they lived, and tell their whole stories, as best we can.

Book Review: Evidence!

Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family HistorianI just finished reading Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Now before I go on, I know what some of you are thinking: "That book's old and outdated. It was published ten years before the 1st edition of Evidence Explained." The latter point point is true, but irrelevant. The previous sentence is completely false.

What do we consider old in this field? Surely not a 14 year old book. We use century-old scraps of handwritten documents all the time in our research. It's not outdated either; the basics for citing electronic sources are all in there. While Evidence! doesn't have as much information about the internet as Evidence Explained (EE), 99% of the book is as timely as ever. It's more important to get across the purpose of citations than to have an all-inclusive laundry list of of every citation format ever imaginable.

There are other books, both older and newer, that serve the same purpose as EE. However, it's pretty clear to me now it's become the definitive work of the genre. When I first encountered it searching on Amazon, I couldn't tell how EE and Evidence! were differentiated. They're both written by the same author, some years apart, but it wasn't clear whether EE was a replacement for Evidence!, or an altogether new type of work. Then at RootsTech, I heard EE being extolled chapter and verse in nearly every session, and learned most of the major software vendors have templates to input sources in the correct EE format. So I paged through them both, and decided I would buy EE, eventually. I think every serious genealogist should own it. In the mean time, I found a copy of Evidence! at the public library.

The first two chapters alone make the book worth reading and rereading: "Fundamentals of citation" and "Fundamentals of analysis." They clock in at 24 and 16 pages, respectively, and the whole book is only about 100 pages long. The rest of the book is a reference with "Citation formats" and examples of properly cited writing. It's only about 1/8 the size of EE, and therein lies its chief virtue. EE begins with the same basic chapters, albeit reversed, and considerably longer. Each chapter in Evidence! starts with a list of 13 principles, then explains them in clear, concise, plain English. The size of EE alone is enough to dissuade many amateurs from reading it.

I only wish they would publish an update to Evidence!, and put it out in paperback. Very little would need to be changed–merely expanding the number and type of citation formats for electronic sources. (And please, please, include the "Evidence Analysis" diagram from EE. It's a simple, yet brilliant way to visualize the entire process.) I don't know many weekend warrior genealogists who'd be willing to part with $50 for a genealogy reference book. But a second edition of Evidence! in paperback could benefit the whole genealogy community. There are lots of how-to genealogy books for beginners, but few that explain why citations are so vital, and how to make sense of the mess of information we accumulate, which often conflicts.

I personally don't care for Who Do You Think You Are?, but I recognize it's getting more people interested in our field. Thomas MacEntee referred to the period we're living through as "the Third Great Awakening of Genealogy." And with all the influx of newbies, the amount of junk family history on the internet is only going to get worse. For all the benefits of WDYTYA?, its failure to show all the diligent research and analysis going on behind the scenes is its worst flaw. A well marketed, economically priced, paperback edition of Evidence! could help mitigate part of the problem.

Mar 7, 2011

Serendipitous Find at the Family History Library

I've wanted to make a trip to the Family History Library (FHL) for quite a while. In the course of my research, I've almost exhausted the resources of one county museum. That's partly because they're well organized, and their catalog is searchable online. I made a list of the records I found for a dozen or so relatives at home. When I visited their library, looking them up and making copies took less than one hour. But there's still plenty of work for me in other counties, and lots of obituaries to look up on microfilm at the public library. However, none of the local libraries, or even the Minnesota Genealogical Society (MGS) library or Minnesota History Center, have a fraction of the genealogical resources available at the FHL.

I flew into Salt Lake City the day before RootsTech, on an early morning flight so I could at least check out the FHL before the conference. Weeks prior, I'd talked with a fellow MGS member who was an FHL veteran. He said people lined up outside the building in the early morning so they could get a good spot among the microfilm readers. So I was expecting massive lines at the library, due to the big conference down the street. But it didn't seem very crowded the whole trip. Maybe it's busier in the summer, when more people take vacations. If so, I'm starting a tradition to visit in the winter. Salt Lake City might be cold for some people, but it's usually warmer than Minnesota. Since my hotel, the conference, and the library were within a few blocks from each other, I didn't venture much further beyond. Every night I was there, I ended up closing down the library (9PM normal closing time). They even stayed open late two nights during the conference (11PM and midnight).

About half the branches in my family tree are traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. A few stubborn ones won't give me any good clues to search back farther. One of those was my great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac Parks (or Parkes). From census records, his obituary, and two separate headstones, I already knew he was born 13 or 15 Feb 1820, somewhere in England. In this and a few other lines of my family, much of the preliminary work was already done for me by my grandparents, sometime in the early 1980s. Among their papers, somebody had written that Isaac came from Devonshire, England. For the last few years, I've been trying to make a connection there. Late last year, I found the website of the Devon Family History Society, which turned out to be very useful. They've indexed many of the parish registers in the area, including baptisms from 1813-1839. That time period was perfect–Isaac's record should fall right in the middle. They have a surname search to see how many records exist for each index, which returned nine Parks and one Parkes in the baptism records. You can order a printout directly from the website, for a nominal fee of £0.01/record, with a minimum £3.00 order. A few days later, I received an e-mail with a PDF of my requested records, but I was quickly disappointed. None of the names or birth dates even remotely matched.

So Isaac was one of the people I wanted to research at FHL, just to see if their resources could shed some light on him. When I first visited the FHL, I was warmly greeted, and watched the 10 min introduction video. One of the volunteers asked what I was trying to find, and showed me how to use FamilySearch to find records in the library. When the average thirty-something guy in jeans and a T-shirt walks into the library, I don't suppose they think he knows much, if anything, about genealogy. But I'd already done lots of research at home, and had sort of a plan. I suggested searching for Isaac Parks, since I knew it was basically a dead end. But lo and behold, some matching records came up right away. None of them were for Devon, but one was such a close match I had to look up his exact birthday to make sure. In fact, the record helped make sense of the aforementioned discrepancy: he was born 15 Feb and baptized 13 Mar, but the baptism month isn't written in the individual entry. Besides the dates, the name listed for his mother, Rebella, is the same as the middle name he gave my great-great-grandmother. It's a rather rare name–sometimes written incorrectly as Rebecca or Isabella in records. I was pretty sure I'd finally made the connection to England, but this Isaac was listed in Birmingham, far from Devon. His father's name on the register was also Isaac.

The volunteer also showed me a helpful trick. Using advanced search on the old FamilySearch website, you can search by any combination of a person's name, their mother, father, or other fields. When I got back to the hotel, I was able to reconstruct the entire family by searching for all records with the mother Rebella and father Isaac during that period. I subsequently found records I believe to be the previous generation, although I'm not as confident.

Since these indexes are all on the FamilySearch website, I theoretically could have found the same information at home. But I didn't. I tended to rely on a just few websites that I use all the time. (Since RootsTech, I've been trying to diversify my toolkit, but I haven't even checked out all the links and notes I wrote down at the conference yet.) In addition, after I'd written down the details of his family, it was easy to go down in the basement to the UK section, pull out the microfilm, and scan the actual images of the parish register. There was one final piece of evidence on the image that wasn't indexed. His father's occupation was listed as brickmaker–the same thing Isaac did after he immigrated to America. Now I have no doubt these records pertain to my great-great-great-grandfather. In the space of a few hours, I was able to figure out his parents, siblings, and likely candidates for his grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Isaac Parkes baptism record

When we'd first found Isaac's baptism record, I felt a bit dumb, since it came up so quickly. I'd used FamilySearch before, but not regularly. (I later learned that particular index was just added the week before, so I didn't feel so bad. It's hard to keep track of all the databases added to the various genealogy websites, and I didn't see the announcement on Dick Eastman's blog until after I visited the FHL.) I also discovered you can search in the same manner on the new FamilySearch, if you click the tab to search Family Trees, instead of the default, Historical Records. The volunteer helping me may not have known this. I imagine she has more experience and she's thus more comfortable with the old website. There's still lots of content on the old FamilySearch website that hasn't been ported over, but I'm sure it all will be eventually.

Besides this find, I also had a long list of film numbers to scan the actual images for records I already had the information from. Although I spent nearly every waking hour there, I came nowhere close to finishing my list. I don't think I could ever run out of things to research at the FHL.

Mar 4, 2011

Crowdsourcing Genealogy

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without OrganizationsAncestry Insider has a great post today, on what he calls laissez faire indexing. That kind of collaboration is common practice in the Web2.0 era, generally referred to as crowdsourcing. But I like Insider's term too, as it's descriptive of how the phenomenon actually works: individuals' self-interest benefits the whole community. Economists have known this for a couple centuries (although you couldn't tell from our government's economic policies). It's the same principle behind Wikipedia and many other successful websites, and exactly the kind of collaboration we need more of–frequently discussed at RootsTech.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeIf you're interested in the subject, and want lots of examples of crowdsourcing in action, Clay Shirky wrote a couple good books on it: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. (So have many others, but I like his writing better than most.) You can get a taste of his writing on the subject from earlier essays on his website.

Insider doesn't mention it in the post, but Ancestry.com also does a form of this (besides Member Connect and their World Archives Project). Many of their records must be OCRed, so misspellings abound (of course there were already plenty in the original records). I find records about my relatives despite the misspellings, and they have a facility to offer corrections. So as I work on my family tree and find mistakes, I input corrections. Eventually, they show up as alternate spellings on the View Record page, and they periodically send me a nice e-mail thanking me for my contributions. Granted, these efforts usually aren't publicly available (only to their subscribers), but it works on the same principle, and their customers benefit from each other.

Another company that does this well, albeit outside the genealogy community, is LibraryThing. Individual users can input their own book collections, including tags and other metadata for each book. LibraryThing aggregates all the information from its users, and sells a catalog product to small libraries that can't afford software from the major players in the industry. (Their algorithm weeds out the weird tags some people use, e.g. the physical bookshelf where it's located in their home.) They also have services for authors, publishers, and bookstores. It's completely free to catalog up to 200 books, and they're very community friendly (mashups with RSS feeds, API access, etc.). I use it to organize my personal library, and couldn't be happier with it.

Now here's a challenge: I'd bet a talented developer (that leaves me out) could actually create a mashup with freely available records to do just what Insider's talking about. The completely digitized US Census collection at the Internet Archive immediately comes to mind. I'm not a Footnote subscriber, so I don't know how they implemented the example in Insider's post, but there are many methods that would work. Using HTML5 and JavaScript (and libraries like jQuery and jQueryUI to do the heavy lifting), you could overlay the census image with a drag and drop form to input text values of the image underneath.

Mar 2, 2011

Genetic Genealogy and Family Websites

I had my DNA tested last year with Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). Before I made the purchase, I'd been reading everything I could find for almost a year, to make sure I understood all the ramifications and possibilities. I eventually decided to order their 37-marker Y chromosome test (Y-DNA 37), HVR1+HVR2 mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA Plus), and the autosomal test they call Family Finder.

The results for the Y-DNA test came back quickly, but resulted in very few matches–no close ones at all. I have a fairly rare paternal haplogroup, N. After researching what that means, it made perfect sense; my paternal line comes from the Baltic region. There just aren't enough people from that background who've tested yet. The mtDNA results came back next, placing me in the maternal haplogroup K. I have several exact matches, but they're from all over Europe, so I haven't contacted any of them yet. Since mtDNA mutates much more slowly than the Y-DNA markers tested, matches could be related through a maternal ancestor 100s or even 1000s of years ago.

Family Finder (FF) results were a bit slower. FTDNA is in the process of upgrading their tests to a new platform, so all their existing FF tests are being rerun also. As soon as my results came back, I had one match predicted as a 5th or more distant cousin. I e-mailed them, but have yet to hear back. Now every few days, as more tests are posted, I'm getting a few more matches. As of today, I have eight matches, all pretty distant, except one predicted as a 3rd cousin. I've e-mailed all of them, and received replies from most of them. We haven't been able to determine how we're related yet, but in many cases we've been able to narrow down our search to one particular branch, or geographic area.

Most of my ancestors were relative newcomers to America, arriving in the late 19th century. So I've been concentrating on the lines with deep roots here. Unfortunately, those branches are some of my least documented, or researched in many cases. I have solid paper trails for most of my ancestors since the mid-19th century, some extending back into Europe. What little I knew of my ancestors who were already in America in the 18th century, was often based on others' research I'd found on the internet. Yes, I know, one should never trust somebody else's research without verifying the evidence, especially from the internet. But this was years ago, before I'd ever heard of Evidence Explained. Ancestry.com has actually made me a better researcher, as I have access to countless databases, and check everybody's work against the sources (but I'll save that for another post some day).

One line that's been in America since the 17th century, and I hadn't researched thoroughly, is the Matteson family. Based on the geographic area where the ancestors of both my matches' and mine were approximately co-located, this was one branch I suspected might have some connections. One of my great-great-great-grandmothers was a Mattison, and I already had records regarding her and her parents back to 1850. Then using a simple Google search, I found a wonderful family website for the Mattesons! I'd previously found the eponymous cemetery, village, lake, and township in Michigan, but didn't know how they were related. The website lists five generations of descendants from the patriarch, Henry Matteson. Now I'm going through it all, verifying the information against the sources I can find, and adding it to my family tree. I wish every family had a website like that. It would make research so much easier. For many of my ancestors, I don't know where to go next, or even begin in some cases.

As a side note, this is probably the most misspelled surname among all my ancestors. It's not a particularly strange name or difficult to spell, but it's close to several other surnames, and the double consonant and vowels are often mixed up. Not even counting the collateral branches, here are variant* and deviant* spellings of the surname I've found in different records:
  • Maddison (deviant)
  • Madison (adopted by some descendants)
  • Mathewson (deviant)
  • Matson (deviant)
  • Matthewson (deviant)
  • Matteson (original surname)
  • Matterson (deviant)
  • Mattison (adopted by my descendants)
*Note: I'm using the terms variant and deviant according to the Guild of One-Name Studies.

New Logo

Don't laugh, but I finally made a logo for my blog and profile. I have no artistic talent to speak of, so I stole two existing graphics. However, since both were licensed under Creative Commons, anybody is free to remix and reuse them, legally. In case you're artistically challenged like myself, and want to know how I created it, here are the steps I took:

I had an idea of using a map of Minnesota, with a tree superimposed on top of it. My state has an irregular border–instantly recognizable if you know anything about American geography. Also tree shapes can be pretty complex, and I wanted some roots on the tree. That ruled out using raster graphics, since the logo would probably get pixelated and look even worse. To find the graphics I wanted, I searched Google for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), an open standard for vector graphics files.

Google image search has the option, under Advanced Search, to filter results by Usage Rights. I set it to only return images under Creative Commons licenses or in the public domain. (You can do a similar search on Flickr.) I found a suitable SVG file with the Minnesota shape on Wikipedia, although it had lots of extra graphics I didn't want. I also found a good tree graphic, with roots even, except it had some grass I didn't like.

To edit SVG files, there are myriad choices of software from commercial vendors, like Adobe Illustrator. But that would set you back a few hundred dollars! Instead, I used a free application, called Inkscape, that works just as well. You can download Inkscape for Windows, MacOS X, or Linux.

I isolated the shape of Minnesota from the surrounding map, changed the color, and added a thin border. If you've used any other vector graphics software, Inkscape works about the same way.

Next, I got rid of the grass in the tree drawing, and pasted it on top of the Minnesota map. Then it was just a matter of resizing and aligning them until I was satisfied with the result. I know it's still ugly, but lots of people with actual talent use the same tools, and create great looking graphics. Your mileage may vary.

My Family Surnames

I guess this is obligatory on genealogy blogs, so here are the surnames of all my great-great-grandparents, in alphabetic order (including some alternate forms or spelling):
  • Behrend/Behrendt/Berend
  • Berqvist
  • Callahan
  • Click
  • Cziok
  • Harris
  • Hill
  • Koerber
  • Machula/Maczula/Matschulatis/Maczullatis
  • Mittelstadt/Mittelstaedt
  • Lagergren (was Nilsson)
  • Parks/Parkes
  • Reberg/Rehberg
  • Sontopski
  • Stein
  • Wobith
If you're researching any of these families (especially the rarer surnames), we might be related. I have lots of information on some, hardly anything on others. But by sharing, we might be able to extend our family trees back another generation or more. I'll periodically post things as I find them, or at least once I have time to write them up.

Update:
I've added these surnames to a permanent page, with its own tab at the top. As I publish more surnames to individual posts, I'll add them to that page so they're all in one spot.

RootsTech 2011 Thursday Keynotes

The opening plenary session at RootsTech 2011 was a great way to set the tone for the rest of the conference. It was broadcast live over the internet originally. I hope the videos are uploaded so others can watch them, and see why all the buzz about RootsTech. (Apparently, some are now online, but not the Thursday keynotes yet.)

First up was a vice president from HP, Shane Robison. Not an obvious choice to lead off a conference about genealogy, but he fit the bill nonetheless. While his presentation wasn't specifically about genealogy at all, it dovetailed nicely into many of the sessions I later attended. He explained the state of the IT industry and where it's going, using pictures and language the average, non-computer savvy genealogist could understand. He spent quite a bit of time talking about cloud computing, and some on the industry terms software as a service (SaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS). Now any keynote by a corporate bigwig wouldn't be complete without a bit of free advertising, and he didn't disappoint. He explained how HP was well positioned for the future, as the only large vendor with solutions across the whole spectrum of cloud computing, from big iron servers down to smartphones. All true, but there's still lots of competition in every space along that spectrum–a good thing in my opinion.

As a certified computer geek and hobbyist programmer, much of his talk wasn't new to me. But one small illustration he made was rather profound. For the last 20 years or more, the IT industry has been all about the T, technology. But more and more nowadays, the emphasis is shifting to the I, information. I'd never thought about that before, but I realize how true it is. We used to have to continually upgrade our computer hardware to be able to run the newest, ever more bloated, software. But today, every entry-level desktop computer is far beyond the required capability to perform the tasks most people need. That fact, plus the ubiquity of large, cheap hard disk drives, and the availability of endless streams of data via the internet have changed the situation dramatically. We're deluged with so much data, it's hard to make sense of it, and figure out which piece is important, and which is extraneous. Those are the kinds of problems being tackled in the IT industry today.


HP TouchPadThere's another reason I was delighted to see an HP executive speak that day. Just the night before, HP held an event they'd advertised with the slogan, "Think big. Think small. Think beyond." It was about their WebOS product line they acquired when they bought Palm, Inc. Each part of the slogan was a new product: the TouchPad tablet, and Veer and Pre3 smartphones. While the Pre3 is merely an upgrade, and the Veer basically a much smaller version, the TouchPad is pretty exciting. I'd been eagerly anticipating the event because I've been a longtime Palm user. (I could write a long, detailed post on the history of the Palm platform, but then everybody would stop reading at this point. So I'll suffice to relate an example from my own experience.)

My primary computer for the last few years has been an Apple laptop. The default applications in MacOS X for e-mail, calendar, and address book are pretty good, and met most of my needs out of the box. When I got my first smartphone, a Palm Centro, it wanted me to install a completely new personal information management suite, incompatible with the existing applications. Instead, I found some nifty software from Mark/Space that synced the phone with Apple's products. Problem solved! It's one of the few software utilities I was willing to pay for. But smartphone technology kept blazing ahead, and the iPhone and multiple Android phones passed me by. So as soon as there was a good deal (free after rebate), I got a Palm Pixi. Like the Pre, it also runs WebOS, which is a totally different OS than the old Palm devices. It's completely cloud-based, and pretty darn innovative. It can pull your contacts, e-mail, and calendar from multiple sources, and I no longer need any third party utilities to sync. I still use the default Apple applications, but they and my phone all pull the data from an online account.

I really like WebOS. It has a great UI, and you can develop complete apps in only HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Much easier to program for than either iPhone or Android. So the TouchPad really intrigues me. The same OS, in a large form factor like the iPad. Especially with some of Apple's recent predatory business practices, they need some good competition in this arena. And while I haven't found any genealogy-related apps for WebOS yet, there will be if it gains any significant market share. Ancestry.com released some great looking apps for the iPad and iPhone, and I'd bet they're already working on an Android version. Here's hoping for a WebOS app as well.

The second keynote was from Jay Verkler, the CEO of FamilySearch, which both organized and sponsored RootsTech. He has quite the resumé, as a former executive for Oracle and multiple successful Silicon Valley start-ups. Now he's an employee of the LDS Church, in charge of their Family History division. He started out with a joke how he's usually the warm-up for the big keynote speaker, but this time it was reversed. The order worked out well, though. It started out very broad and visionary, then he focused it more specifically on genealogy. He explained the rationale behind RootsTech and outlined the process of revamping the FamilySearch websites, which are now based in the cloud, on Amazon's AWS. I think it's pretty clear he's largely responsible for many of the improvements to the FamilySearch website, and the direction they're heading, eventually to all digital.

All in all, two great speeches to start out a hybrid conference on genealogy and technology.