RootsTech 2011: Day 2

Day 2 of RootsTech started with a spirited keynote address by Curt Witcher of the Allen County Public Library on “The Changing Face of Genealogy.” His point was: The world is going digital and going there quickly. Get on board, or be left behind.

Brian Pugh of FamilySearch presented a powerful talk on how the new FamilySearch website has utilized cloud services (primarily from Amazon Web Services: to provide world class website in a cost-efficient manner. The strategy has allowed them to auto-scale up and down their services as needed. Additionally, they are able to create data snapshots to quickly build new prototypes of their site for development and testing. They use Amazon S3 as a shared filesystem for dynamic content, though the performance of S3 is not designed for serving up images, and so on, so they cache the data stored on S3 for actual delivery to web browsers.

One thing they are doing on the FamilySearch website is utilizing Amazon Elastic IPs to allow for “hot” deployment of new versions of the site. They can build the new version of the site, test it, and then in a matter of seconds, have Amazon redirect the IP address of the website to the new site, while keeping the old site in reserve. If they need to fall back to the old site, it’s again only a matter of seconds.

They also use Amazon MapReduce to perform complex computations.

FamilySearch engineers have made available programming language for creating cloud based systems, available at: This allows managers of cloud environments to quickly issue “verbs” such as

  • Deploy
  • Configure
  • Shutdown
  • Snapshot

One key thing that Mr. Pugh said about Amazon’s offering in this space, is that it is being widely used. Among others, he mentioned that the New York Times, Major League Baseball, Netflix, 3M, Activision, ESPN, NASDAQ, The Guardian, and Razorfish (and I can add the New England Historic Genealogy Society, based on the Friday luncheon.)

Later in the day, I was able to attend a viewing of “Who Do You Think You Are?” at the Family History Library. They gave out raffle items, and I won a copy of Ancestry for the Mac. I then took advantage of the Library being open until midnight, researching my Hills, Johnsons, and Crows in Howard County and Nance County, Nebraska.

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RootsTech 2011: Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of RootsTech, a new conference on genealogy and technology held in Salt Lake City and sponsored by FamilySearch International, the genealogy information arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The conference started with a little bit of confusion: It seemed that there was a rush to the registration table just prior to the keynote address. This kind of thing can be minimized, of course, by opening registration the day before, or by sending all the lightweight items (tickets to lunches and events, lanyard and badge) ahead of time, and then simply exchanging one of those tickets for a standard backpack or laptop case and any other schwag and late-breaking news.

In any case, the organizers offered to let people register later; they were not going to check badges for the first event. This was something I definitely took advantage of, since I didn’t want to miss the talk by Shane R. Robison (Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Hewlett Packard) A World of Information and Jay Verkler (CEO, FamilySearch International) Turning Roots, Branches, Trees into Nodes, Links, Graphs.

I am not sure what the more genealogically and less technologically minded attendees thought of Shane’s speech. It was a well-delivered discussion of the future of cloud computing and globalization. I found it fascinating. Of course, with so much of the world so populated, and with these other population centers (China, India, Brazil) poised to dramatically move into more of a middle-class existence, there are serious challenges for global sustainability. I was glad to see that Mr. Robison had sustainability in the center of his group of priorities for Hewlett Packard.

Mr. Verkler got up and tied this all back into genealogy, pointing out that cloud computing is happening in a big way already in the genealogy space: All of the new FamilySearch website is hosted on Amazon EC2 servers in the cloud, not on servers FamilySearch owns itself.

Later in the day, I spent some time manning the NGS booth, looked around at the exhibit hall, and attended some talks. IBM has a space in the exhibit hall with games: non-virtual (pool, air hockey, chess) and virtual (Microsoft Kinect). They were also giving away massages. I also attended jQuery and Web Services, a talk by Logan Allred. He was cogent and clear. Over lunch, I heard Chris van der Kuyl of brightsolid discuss Family History in the Age of the Cloud. He didn’t really talk about the cloud much, but it was an interesting romp through the intersection of technology and genealogy, and a good introduction to brightsolid as a company.

Jimmy Zimmerman’s Ruby Library for FamilySearch API was also a great talk, so full of details, it was practically a code review. I regret to say that Barry Ewell’s talk, Digitally Preserving Your Family Heritage, did not impress me. He’s very knowledgeable about the topic, but his speaking style grated on me. He would start a sentence, stop in the middle, say a couple of sentences that were relevant to him, then finish the original sentence. Maybe he was having an off day, or was a little nervous in the lights, but it didn’t make for a good presentation in my opinion. Michael Buck’s Top Ten Web Applications Security Risks (based on OWASP recommendation) was clear, well thought out, and easy to follow.

At the end of the day, brightsolid sponsored a Night at the Planetarium. There were nachos, sandwiches, and popcorn, but also IMAX films, as well as all the planetarium exhibits. A great end to the day … except that I also headed to the Family History Library, which was open until 11.

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Multiracial and Multiethnic Trees

New York Times: Mixed America's Family Trees
New York Times: Mixed America's Family Trees

The New York Times has an article and an accompanying interactive feature that allows users to explore the American phenomenon of multiracial and multiethnic families.

The story points out that the government uses statistics on race and ethnicity to address race- and ethnic-based inequities, however the increasingly complex nature of family backgrounds is causing a shift from traditional “select one” to more accurate “select all that are appropriate” measures. The story features a young woman, “Michelle López-Mullins — a university student who is of Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee and Cherokee descent” and notes that the Education Department would classify her as “Hispanic.” This obviously over simplifies her background, and thus, from my point of view makes the data and conclusions drawn from it questionable. The US Census tracks 63 combinations of racial and ethnic categories, and allows people to select as many as apply to them.

According to the article, things have changed dramatically to the extent that currently 1 in 7 marriages in the US are multiracial or multiethnic. The current wave of immigration, as well as falling barriers between ethnic and racial groups, as well as diminishing of stigmas regarding multiracial and multiethnic families.

If you click on the image to the Multiracial and Multiethnic Categorizationright, you will see some of the different ways one individual is categorized. (In addition to government categories, the Times gives us an idea of what Ms. López-Mullins, her father, and one of her friends think about her background.)

This is of critical importance to genealogists. In the future, someone mining government documents of their ancestors will be enabled, if the information is accurate and detailed enough, to get new clues. If the information is watered down or confusing, with multiple standards within Federal agencies, not to mention across the states, the work of the future genealogist will be more difficult.

The interactive feature I mentioned allows you to share a small family tree along with the ethnic and racial backgrounds that make it up, with pictures, if you have some handy. You may also add an audio file of up to 10 MB of audio explaining the tree.

Cyber Security

How to Protect Yourself in a Connected World

As genealogists, we are often online — whether using scanned records from a subscription site, searching through transcriptions on GenWeb, volunteering for a local society, or sending e-mail to a recently found cousin. Being online as much as we are, we assume some risks. While these risks are manageable, and do not exceed the value of computing and Internet use for genealogists, it is important to assess your risk level, and take steps to limit potential attacks. Let me walk you through some of the things you should consider.

Create Secure Passwords

With all of the passwords we need to create and remember, it is tempting to have a single, memorable password for e-mail, subscription sites, and financial institutions. Doing so puts you at risk. If your password is memorable for you it can probably be guessed by someone else, or by a computer program. And if you only have one password, if someone guesses it, that person has access to any and all of your accounts. The best password security will include passwords that cannot be guessed. They should not be a date, a name, or a commonly known word found in any dictionary. Computer programs exist that can try numerous possibilities to hack your password. Instead, your passwords should have a combination of upper- and lower-case characters, numerals, and symbols. There are websites that can produce random, secure passwords; for example, PC Tools offers one Of course, having dozens of passwords, all of them difficult to remember, presents its own problems— human memory has its limits.

There is the tried-and-true method of writing things down, but you certainly do not want to lose a notebook of your passwords. Since you might not want to take your password list out of the house, you will not be able to log in to your subscription research sites from Starbucks. Another method, which I recommend, is storing your passwords in a password manager, either online or offline. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. Programs such as RoboForm and websites such as LastPass allow you to encrypt passwords and then store them on your computer’s hard disk, or in the cloud.

RoboForm runs on Windows and stores all the password data on your hard drive in one of a number of encryption formats. You can also purchase a version that runs on a USB key, so you can take it with you. LastPass stores your passwords in an encrypted form in the cloud, in other words, potentially on a number of servers across the Internet. For added security, you can get a USB key to provide another level of validation. Access to the passwords requires that the key, which is specially configured for your account, be plugged into your computer, and that you know the e-mail address and password of the account. If you lose the key, you can reset the account by a request on the website that you then must respond to from your previously associated e-mail account.

Avoid E-mail Scams

Bulk e-mail can be a very financially efficient way for people to steal data. Spammers can send out millions of messages for almost nothing, and if only a few people respond in ways they can exploit, their campaign has been financially successful. The main method of e-mail scam these days has been called “phishing.” In a phishing attack, the scammer sends an e-mail that pretends to be for a legitimate purpose, requesting that you log in to its site, send your password by return e-mail, or in some other way to provide the scammer with some of the credentials (user name/password combinations) that would allow access to one or more of your accounts or your private data. The e-mail can look very official, but often has some tell tale signs: words are misspelled and URLs are slightly different, either in a way you can readily see or underneath the HTML code, which you can observe by hovering your mouse
over them.

To protect yourself, the best first step to have good spam filtering. G-mail from Google includes some of the best spam filtering available. G-mail is also free and is easy to set up. Very rarely do I see a phishing attack in my G-mail inbox; but the spam folder on G-mail is full of phishing attacks. In addition to e-mail filtering, you can set up lists of e-mail addresses and domains so as always to allow (white list) or disallow (black list) mail from those sources. For example, if you want to make sure that mail from your cousin Sheila gets though, you would white list her e-mail address. On the other hand, if you had received malicious e-mail from (not, you might black list any mail coming from the domain Many service providers provide this service, building a black list of known or suspected sources of spam and malware.

Once you have spam filtering, and even if you have a black list and white list set up, some phishing attacks will get through. To keep your data safe, use caution when responding to e-mail. The e-mail address the mail comes from might be other than what appears in your e-mail software. If you believe that your bank may actually be contacting you via e-mail, do not simply click on the e-mail link, hit the reply button, or call a phone number in the e-mail. Contact the bank directly, either by typing its Web address in your browser yourself, sending e-mail where you enter the address yourself, or by calling the bank with a phone number you already have on file for them. If this was a legitimate e-mail from your bank, a copy of it will be in your online account, and it should also be available to the bank’s customer service personnel when you call.

Thwart Viruses and Malware

Malware is software that is designed to do harm. This software can be embedded into software programs or files, and can be hidden in what look like harmless websites. This is a risk whether you are on a Windows or a Mac computer.

Over the years, Macintosh enthusiasts like me have boasted that its operating system is immune to these kinds of attacks. Despite the fact that we can be annoying, even PC devotees have to admit that the number of malware programs directly aimed at the Mac OS has remained low. There have been no major virus outbreaks on Mac OS X, but this may be on the verge of changing. Even the Mac OS X has to use browsers to navigate the Web, and any software designed to request files from the Internet will have vulnerabilities. At the CanSecWest digital security conference in Vancouver this Spring, computer security engineers demonstrated the ability to exploit Internet Explorer on Windows, Firefox on the Macintosh, and Safari on the Macintosh and on iPhones. (Google Chrome was the only browser on which no one was able to demonstrate security holes.) Another aspect of anti-virus considerations is that users who run Windows through BootCamp or a third-party Windows virtual machine, have Macintoshes that are vulnerable to both Macintosh and PC viruses.

What can you do about this? First of all, you should install virus protection software. On Windows, the best known programs are McAfee VirusScan and Norton AntiVirus; on the Mac OS, choices include Norton AntiVirus, McAfee VirusScan, and Intego VirusBarrier. Next, you should keep your operating system and browsers up to date. Operating system and browser developers regularly release patches (small fixes) to their software when they are able to thwart a known security threat. If you set your preferences to allow download and installation of these security patches, you will be less vulnerable to malware than you would otherwise be.

Genealogists prefer to focus their time on research and on evaluating sources, but the ability these days to do research depends on access to the Internet and to the files that have been scanned, downloaded, and created. If you invest a minimal amount of time in learning how to address password security, phishing attacks, and malware, you will likely avoid much more time-consuming and frustrating situations in the future, where you might lose some of your genealogical data or have your computer raided.

This article, which originally appeared in a slightly different form in the National Genealogical Society‘s NGS Magazine, is republished here by permission.

Kindle Update, 3.1

Kindle 3 with 3.1 Software (New York Times Capture)

Amazon announced today an update for the latest generation of the Kindle e-book reader, commonly called Kindle 3. Users can wait for their Kindle 3 or Kindle DX devices to automatically be updated, or they can download the software and install it themselves at:

Kindle Software Update Version 3.1 – Early Preview Release

According to Amazon, the update provides the following benefits:

  • Public Notes – In the interest of helping people become “social” about their reading, Amazon will allow people to share their notes and highlights with other readers. In addition to public sharing, there will also be private sharing, allowing book clubs or students to share their notes only with specific people.
  • Real Page Numbers – This has been requested from the beginning. In order to allow for what is called “re-flowable” content, Amazon, and most other manufacturers of e-readers, provide locations in an internal scheme that doesn’t mean anything to users, and makes it difficult for people using a Kindle to have close-text discussions with others, say classmates, reading the same book on paper. The Kindle page numbers will be based on one specific printed edition.
  • Before You Go – At the completion of  a book, readers will be invited to rate it or to comment in a more detailed way.
  • New Newspaper and Magazine Layout – Designed to give users a quicker overview of the content, and easier navigation to it.

These changes will be ported to other Kindle software-based readers, such as Kindle for Mac and Kindle for Android. I could not get any of the books I have purchased before to display pages, even after downloading them again. The new format for newspapers and magazines is a big improvement.

Genealogists should know that the newer versions of the Kindle (the Kindle 3 and the Kindle DX) can read any PDF natively. I find it handy to bring along dozens of PDF books with me everywhere I go, in a portable, quick starting, low power device that can go weeks without a charge. I am also enjoying Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative as an audio book from Audible (a subsidiary of Amazon), which I also have on my Kindle.

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Civil War Sesquicentennial Blogs

Genealogists need to be historians. There is no way to understand a family history outside of the larger context of the history the family lived through. Genealogists have a rare opportunity over the next few years to witness the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Civil War. This will be commemorated with exhibits, books, websites, records releases, and re-enactments of battles.

In commemoration of an important and painful period in American history, several groups have set up blogs about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War:

Many states also have blogs or other websites commemorating the events and detailing museum exhibits or online collections. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list. For example, I have not includes sites that seems to be mainly about a historical commission, but not about the Civil War history itself.

Surname Saturday: Via

George A. Via
George A. Via, My 4th Great Grandfather

The Via surname is one of my more unique surnames. Since I regularly research Smith, Jones, Johnson, Miller, Hill, and Graham, it’s good to have the occasional rare surname. My Vias descend through Micajah Via, Sr. (circa 1742 – circa 1810) and Phillipi Burnett, and their son Jonathan Via, Sr. and his wife Catherine O’Buck (or O’Bock).

George Allen Via, the son of Jonathan Sr. and Catherine O’Buck Via, was my 4th great grandfather. He and his wife Mary Elizabeth Lane (married 2 Dec 1839) had a dozen or so children (I’m still working out that generation). Two of their sons Thomas David Via and John Robert Via, served in the Confederate army. John was in Company A (2nd Company), 12th Batallion, Virginia Light Artillery Regiment (along with 6 other Vias).

Thomas (who is my 3rd great grandfather) first served in Company ‘I,’ 7th Regiment Virginia Volunteers (along with two other Via), but after being captured at Gettysburg,and imprisoned at Point Lookout Prison, he joined the 1st US Volunteer Infantry, likely as a matter of survival. (This means he was a Galvanized Yankee, which I will write more about in another post.)

Most of the Via’s that I have come across in the US descend from Amer Via, a Huguenot immigrant to Virginia in about 1680. Alternate spellings of Via include Vier/Viers, Viar/Viars and Viet.

A couple of forums for the Via surname exist:

Here are some items I will be posting, as I get a chance, on this site. As I post them, I will come back to this page and link into them.

Mary E. Lane Via (1820-1893)
George A. Via (1814-1894)

Magazine and Newspaper Articles
Micajah Via, petiton on paper money, 1788
Betty Via on her students as critics, 1953
Dan O. Via, Sr., 50th anniversary, 1968
Daniel Via, 20th anniversary, 1974
Dan O. Via, Jr. play about Jesus, 1982
Margaret B. Via ordination, 1982
Via family saved by their dog article 1, 1986
Via family saved by their dog article 2, 1986

Birth Records
Floyd County, VA, 1853-1896
Franklin County, VA, 1852-1870
Hanover County, VA, 1853-1893

Land Records
Deed: James and Rosina Ingrum to Anderson Via, 1848
Deed: James and Mary Via to David McAlexander, 1848
Deed: Robert and Elizabeth Via to James Dodson, 1849

Tax Records
Vias in the Albemarle County, Virginia Land Tax Records, 1782-1813
Vias in the Albemarle County, Virginia Land Tax Records, 1814-1825
Vias in the Floyd County, Virginia Land Tax Records, 1831-1850
Vias in the Hanover County, Virginia Land Tax Records, 1782-1857
Vias in the Nelson County Personal Property Tax, 1809-1850

Military Records
Thomas David Via’s pension papers (HTML | PDF)

Marriage Bonds & Certificates
Jonathan Via and Catherine O’Buck, 1801

Death Records
Augusta County, VA, 1853-1896
Floyd County, VA, 1853-1896
Fluvanna County, VA, 1853-1896
Franklin County, VA, 1853-1896

Jonathan Via, Sr., 1858
Jonathan Via, Jr., 1888

Thomas D. and Sallie E. Via
Mary Via

Obituary of Sallie Thomas Via, 1911
Obituary of Thomas David Via, 1913
Obituary of William Martin Via, 1937
Obituary of Willie Catherine Elizabeth Via, 1937
Obituary of Betty Via, 1993

Gedcoms and Other Compiled Research
Jordan Jones’s Gedcom of Vias
Jordan Jones’s Genealogy Database List of Vias

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Who Do You Think You Are, Episode 201

The second season of the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are? premiered tonight, with an episode featuring Vanessa Williams.

The ancestry of Ms. Williams was traced back to a great great grandfather (on her father’s side), David Carll. He was born a free black man, joined Co. I, 26th US Colored Infantry. For joining the infantry, he received $300 bounty money; five days later, he bought land for $200 providing some security for his family in Oyster Bay, New York. He served for the remainder of the war, and helped enforce emancipation after the war.

Another great great grandfather, William A. Fields, was born a slave in antebellum Tennessee. Not only did he live to see slavery abolished, but he was elected to the state house of Tennessee, and died as a well honored and trusted justice-of-the-peace. While in the legislature, he introduced a bill for universal education between the ages of 7 and 16. Unfortunately, it died in committee.

The show had powerful emotions, as Ms. Williams identified analogues to her own experience in the lives of her ancestors. An interest in education has been a part of her family since the Civil War era.

The show moves more quickly this season, with almost no recaps. The show is getting tighter, and tells a more compelling story. Less is simply handed to the celebrities, at least in view of the camera, so the show feels more immediate in this episode than it did in most of the episodes of the first season.

In one of the teasers for future episodes, we hear Rosie O’Donnell say: “It’s not going to be as easy as it looks on TV.” This should be carved into the limestone of the National Archives building. The hours of research that went into the findings are not really mentioned. While I don’t think this should be dramatized or take much time, I will continue to tell anyone who will listen that the genealogical profession would benefit if the show had a simple title card reading: “Research for this show included X hours of research by Y professional researchers in Z states.”

The show runs on NBC on Fridays at 8 (7 Central). Check your local listings. The next episode features country music start Tim McGraw. Subsequent episodes will feature Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie O’Donnell, Steve Buscemi, Kim Cattrall, Lionel Richie, and Ashley Judd.

You can watch the Vanessa Williams Episode, 201: “Making History” on

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RootsTech 2011

RootsTech LogoAre you attending RootsTech in Salt Lake City next week?

RootsTech is a new family history and technology conference, which aims to unite technologists and technology users. Sponsors of the conference include the usual suspects (FGS, NEHGS, NGS (for which I am a board member), Brightsolid,, and Ancestry), but also technology leaders such as Microsoft, Dell, Novell, Oracle, and Sprint.

There will be booths and presentations, but there are top-notch key note speakers on the billing, including

  • Shane Robison, Executive VP and Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Hewlett-Packard
  • Brewster Kahle, Founder of WAIS and the Internet Archive
  • Curt B. Witcher, Historical Genealogy Dept. Manager, Allen County Public Library
  • Jay Verkler, CEO, FamilySearch

The conference starts on Thursday 10 February and runs through Saturday 12 February. I will be there representing the NGS and participating in a discussion on Saturday morning on genealogical data models. Check out the full list of events.

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Wordless Wednesday: Kjerstin Johnson (1834-1927)

This is my great great grandmother, Kjerstin Johnson, who was born in Sweden, immigrated to America at the age of 34, had 12 children (11 surviving to adulthood), and died at the age of 92.

You can read more about her and her family in “History of Swan Johnson Family, Nance County, Nebraska, January 1936,” by her eldest grandchild, Lena Johnson Schlictemeier, also pictured here with her mother and grandmother.

[slickr-flickr tag=”Kjerstin Johnson” type=”gallery”]

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