Dreaming of Clouds

“Cloud Computing,”Sam John­ston, 2009. This file is licensed under the Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

If any­thing, the rush to pro­vide con­tent in the cloud is begin­ning to speed up.

On March 29th, Ama­zon announced its Cloud Drive ser­vice, focus­ing on stor­age of MP3 audio files, which can be streamed from the web with Amazon’s Cloud Player. Cloud Drive is able to store any dig­i­tal files.

On May 10th, Google released a sim­i­lar prod­uct: Google Music.

The blo­gos­phere is full of spec­u­la­tion about when Apple will release iCloud, it’s much expected, audio stream­ing ser­vice. Many Apple reporters think that iCloud will be rolled out dur­ing the Apple World­wide Devel­op­ers’ Con­fer­ence, start­ing on June 6th.

As the per­for­mance of wire­less net­works increases, the cloud becomes more attrac­tive. More and more peo­ple are using portable devices (iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets). These devices often com­bine min­i­mal stor­age with built-in inter­net con­nec­tions, and that adds up to a com­pelling argu­ment for file stor­age in the cloud, with access to any­thing, but min­i­mal local stor­age requirements.

Apple’s reported goal with iCloud is to allow peo­ple to play their songs with­out first hav­ing to upload them. Apple’s ser­vice would repli­cate your list of songs on its servers, and stream them from a com­mon source when you wanted them. (Both Google and Ama­zon require you to spend hours and hours, or days, upload­ing your music library.)

Unfor­tu­nately, in the  geneal­ogy realm, there is no mas­sive media con­glom­er­ate who owns archival elec­tronic records of your data.

Wait … what about Ances­try and Fam­il­y­Search? These folks have archival qual­ity dig­i­tal images of orig­i­nal records. When I log into Ances­try, it knows which doc­u­ments I have put in my shoe­box. It has all the meta­data about the 1930 cen­sus record for my father and his fam­ily. Yes, I can down­load it, and yes, I can nav­i­gate to it in the con­text of an Ances­try Fam­ily Tree, or in the con­text of a soft­ware pack­age where I have attached this image.…

But why can’t I eas­ily tag this image with my own per­sonal meta­data (as on Footnote.com), and see the tags other peo­ple use (as on Delicious.com), and why can’t I search my “per­sonal doc­u­ment col­lec­tion” for text (deliv­ered via Opti­cal Char­ac­ter Recog­ni­tion, or in the con­text of a tex­tual doc­u­ment) or for metadata?

Why can’t I search through my entire genealog­i­cal image col­lec­tion, with­out hav­ing it on my local sys­tem, with the search run­ning in the cloud?

Why indeed!

Behind the Scenes at NGS 2011: Blog Talk Radio

Thomas MacEn­tee did a BlogTalkRa­dio inter­view with Jan Alpert, NGS 2011 Con­fer­ence Chair and Imme­di­ate Past Pres­i­dent of NGS and Julie Miller, CG, NGS 2012 Con­fer­ence Chair and Vice Pres­i­dent of the NGS. This was a rare behind-the-scenes inter­view with two lead­ers who have orga­nized and led conferences.

It’s a rare look behind the scenes at what goes into choos­ing a con­fer­ence loca­tion, how patron­iz­ing the con­fer­ence hotel and lun­cheon and ban­quet events keeps over­all prices low, and your soci­ety fis­cally healthy.

This is the fourth install­ment of the weekly FGS MySo­ci­ety talk radio show. It’s a great pro­gram. You should lis­ten. I know that I’m adding it to iTunes to lis­ten in, even when I can­not make it “live.”

Here are some links:

 

Read it Later vs. Instapaper

Read It Later logoI have become a fan of two com­pet­ing prod­ucts, Instapa­per and Read it Later.

These appli­ca­tions sit in your browser, and allow you to quickly archive a web­page for later read­ing. They clean up the web­page, remov­ing ads and com­pli­cated script­ing, so you just have the text you want to read.

Instapaper logoYou can then read the con­tent in your browser at their sites, on a mobile phone, or on a tablet. Instapa­per will also allow you to con­fig­ure con­tent col­lec­tions to show up on your Kin­dle. Both are inte­grated with a great site full of longer arti­cles, longform.org, allow­ing you to quickly choose some read­ing before you catch that plane and lose your inter­net connection.

In terms of geneal­ogy, I use these tools to gather his­tor­i­cal pieces, such as the arti­cles the New York Times is doing on the sesqui­cen­ten­nial of the Civil War, “Dis­union,” as well as more top­i­cal items, such as John McPhee’s 1987 New Yorker piece about the Army Corps of Engi­neers and its attempts to con­trol the Mis­sis­sippi River, Atchafalaya: The Con­trol of Nature. (That was top­i­cal then, and is top­i­cal now; I found it on longform.org.)

Instapa­per allows you to for­mat the sto­ries for print­ing; Read it Later has a great (and not too expen­sive) iPad app that auto­mat­i­cally cat­e­go­rizes the con­tent. I find Read it Later’s web inter­face to be more attrac­tive, but some of the fea­tures of Instapa­per to be more com­pelling, includ­ing Read­abil­ity inte­gra­tion and Kin­dle auto-delivery.

I’m not sure which one of these I will choose yet, but I know I will have a lot of read­ing at hand.…

Another site to note is Read­abil­ity, which is free for sim­ple cleanup of pages you come across, but costs $5 (or more if you decide to make a dona­tion) if you want to save them for later. 70% of the pro­ceeds are pro­vided to the authors and pub­lish­ers of the content.

NGS 2011 Conference in Charleston, South Carolina

I attended the 2011 National Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety Fam­ily His­tory Con­fer­ence held in Charleston, South Car­olina this past week.

I was pleased to have been asked to give three talks: The inau­gural Birdie Monk Holsclaw Memo­r­ial Lec­ture (slides), a lec­ture on Google and search method­olo­gies (slides), and the NGS Gen­Tech Lun­cheon talk (slides), which was on the topic of social media.

It was a good con­fer­ence, with more knowl­edge­able and vol­u­ble speak­ers than one could pos­si­bly see. I espe­cially liked Buzzy Jackson’s gen­eral ses­sion talk about how she became a geneal­o­gist, and how it’s our job to make our descen­dants think of us as the ones who saved the sto­ries for them. Addi­tion­ally, I enjoyed the talk given by Glenn F. McConnell, Pres­i­dent pro tem­pore of the South Car­olina State Sen­ate about the his­tory, dis­cov­ery, and rais­ing of the H. L. Hunley.

I was also pleased that my own talks seem to have been well received.

The next major excur­sion is to the Vir­ginia Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety con­fer­ence next week­end. The sum­mer is sim­ply full of these events.

150 Years Ago Today: Fort Sumter

Bombardment of Fort Sumter (1861) by Currier & Ives (1837–1885)
Bom­bard­ment of Fort Sumter (1861) by Cur­rier & Ives (1837–1885)

150 years ago today, 12 April 1861, the Civil War started in earnest with a Con­fed­er­ate attack on the Fed­eral posi­tion at Fort Sumter, in advance of sup­ply ships arriv­ing with food to resup­ply the fort.

For Amer­i­can geneal­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans of the United States, the Civil War is the cen­tral event, even more calami­tous than the Rev­o­lu­tion, and affect­ing the lives of a wider per­cent­age of what had become, since the Rev­o­lu­tion, a more pop­u­lous coun­try. (In the 1790 cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion was recorded to be 3,929,214. In the 1860 cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion was 31,443,321, or eight times larger.)

Some­where between 618,000 and 700,000 sol­diers died in the con­flict, mak­ing it more deadly than all the other wars the US par­tic­i­pated in from the Rev­o­lu­tion to the Viet­nam War, com­bined. And, of course, the war, fought mainly (despite revi­sion­ist protests to the con­trary) to main­tain a way of life founded on enslav­ing a race of peo­ple, ended by grant­ing free­dom, first to blacks in states which had seceded, and then to all blacks in all states and ter­ri­to­ries of the US.

This trans­for­ma­tive time is full of records for geneal­o­gists. There are mil­i­tary and pen­sion records, which are some of the best known mil­i­tary records from this period. But there are also the final pay­ment vouch­ers, reports of camps, forts, and pris­ons, numer­ous man­u­scripts, the papers of the South­ern Claims Com­mis­sion, which “was an orga­ni­za­tion of the exec­u­tive branch of the United States gov­ern­ment from 1871–1873 under Pres­i­dent Grant. Its pur­pose was to allow Union sym­pa­thiz­ers who had lived in the South­ern states dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War, 1861–1865, to apply for reim­burse­ments for prop­erty losses due to U.S. Army con­fis­ca­tions dur­ing the war” (Wikipedia. “South­ern Claims Com­mis­sion,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Claims_Commission Accessed : 13 April 2011).

If you have not started look­ing for your Civil War ances­tor, you could do much worse than start with the Civil War Sol­diers and Sailors Sys­tem: http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/. This site includes a search­able data­base of over 6.3 mil­lion names of com­bat­tants from the North and the South, rep­re­sent­ing 44 states and ter­ri­to­ries. There are also many sailors, though this part of the project is not com­plete. The site pro­vides lim­ited infor­ma­tion, but usu­ally includes enough infor­ma­tion to find out more about your sol­dier. For exam­ple, my 3rd great grand­fa­ther, Thomas D. Via, has this entry:

Thomas D. Via (First_Last)
Reg­i­ment Name 7 Vir­ginia Infantry
Side Confederate
Com­pany
I
Soldier’s Rank_In
Private
Soldier’s Rank_Out
Private
Alter­nate Name
Notes
Film Num­ber M382 roll 57

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And also, this:

Thomas D. Via (First_Last)
Reg­i­ment Name 7 Vir­ginia Infantry
Side Confederate
Com­pany
I
Soldier’s Rank_In
Private
Soldier’s Rank_Out
Private
Alter­nate Name
Notes
Film Num­ber M382 roll 57

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(He served in the Con­fed­er­ate army, was cap­tured, and joined the Union army, most likely as a way out of the prison camp he was in at Point Look­out, Mary­land. For more infor­ma­tion see, Sur­name Sat­ur­day: Via.

As the sesqui­cen­ten­nial con­tin­ues, I will pro­vide other sites and tips for Civil War research.

US Census Bureau — Data Access Tools

US Cen­sus Bureau Data Access Tools

The United States Cen­sus Bureau has a page out­lin­ing its data access tools. While the data being made avail­able is sta­tis­ti­cal data, not per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able genealog­i­cal data, it should be of inter­est to geneal­o­gists to under­stand trends and the pop­u­la­tion trends and geog­ra­phy of the United States.

The site pro­vides large datasets for analy­sis, but also allows you to nav­i­gate into pop­u­la­tion demo­graph­ics for any county, state, or munic­i­pal­ity in the United States.

Here are some of the resources avail­able on the page:

  • Cen­stats — Appli­ca­tions avail­able include: Cen­sus Tract Street Loca­tor, County Busi­ness Pat­terns, Zip Busi­ness Pat­terns, Inter­na­tional Trade Data, and more.
  • Quick­Facts — State and County Quick­Facts pro­vides fre­quently requested Cen­sus Bureau infor­ma­tion at the national, state, county, and city level.
  • Online Map­ping Tools — using TIGER and the Amer­i­can FactFinder
  • US Gazetteer — Place name, and ZIP code search engine.

I am look­ing for­ward to hav­ing the oppor­tu­nity to look at these resources.

WDYTYA Episode 208: Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd
Ash­ley Judd

Tonight, Ash­ley Judd was the celebrity on the sea­son finale of Who Do You Think You Are?

Her fam­ily story is com­pelling, and includes a Union Civil War vet­eran from Ken­tucky, who was cap­tured twice by the Con­fed­er­ates, and was a bat­tle­field amputee.

Addi­tion­ally, her line goes back to the ear­li­est days of the Ply­mouth Bay Colony in Massachusetts.

The show pre­sented her as doing some of the research with her father. This wasn’t an entirely believ­able por­tion of the show.

At one point, a researcher indi­cated that the Civil War ancestor’s age of 18 at the mus­ter­ing in and 18 at mus­ter­ing out might have indi­cated that he lied about his age on mus­ter­ing in. That is cer­tainly pos­si­ble. But the age being the same on mus­ter­ing in and out is com­mon through­out US mil­i­tary records, and is sim­ply reflec­tive of a prac­tice that lists the age at mus­ter­ing in instead of the soldier’s cur­rent age through­out the records about that soldier.

How­ever, despite that glitch, it was a com­pelling, dra­matic, and emo­tional sea­son finale. The video will be avail­able for a lim­ited time on demand at: http://www.nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/episode-guide/

WDYTYA Episode 207: Gwyneth Paltrow

This week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? returns to a more tra­di­tional research method­ol­ogy, start­ing from what is known, and mov­ing back­ward to illu­mi­nate the unknown.

While many crit­ics will note that the star did not engage with much of the research, and was being handed hours of research in a moment, I appre­ci­ated the use of fam­ily lore (a Bar­ba­dos back­ground on the mother’s side; a line of rab­bis on the father’s side). Instead of mak­ing assump­tions that this lore was gen­uinely true, the researchers took it as clues to what they might find. There was an acknowl­edge­ment that the lore could be true or false, mis-remembered, mis­un­der­stood, or very very close.

In addi­tion to the lore about the line of rab­bis and the ances­tor from Bar­ba­dos, the third inter­est for Ms. Pal­trow was find­ing out if there was any way to under­stand what had hap­pened in her pater­nal grandfather’s youth to make him ret­i­cent to talk about it other than to say that he did not live in a home like she did. She dis­cov­ered details about her great grand­mother, the losses that she endured, which helped her put it in per­spec­tive. This would have been a per­fect oppor­tu­nity to dis­cuss the change, his­tor­i­cally, in life expectan­cies. Some­one in the mid­dle class los­ing a child today is more rare than it was 100 years ago.

The episode was enter­tain­ing, and pro­vided an oppor­tu­nity to see spec­tac­u­lar vis­tas of Bar­ba­dos as well as con­sider how var­ied Amer­i­can fam­i­lies are. Ms. Pal­trow was vis­i­bly moved by some of the dis­cov­er­ies. This was a solid episode, which would still have been improved with a brief state­ment of the amount of research done to get to these dis­cov­er­ies; how­ever, I know that con­tra­dicts with the Ancestry.com mar­ket­ing mes­sage, which can be boiled down to: “This is so easy, even you could do it!”

WDYTYA Episode 206: Steve Buscemi

This week’s install­ment of Who Do You Think You Are? with Steve Buscemi has an enter­tain­ing story about depres­sion, sui­cide, servi­tude, and the Civil War … but it’s not about geneal­ogy as it is gen­er­ally understood.

After a fairly stan­dard, but solid begin­ning, with Buscemi talk­ing to his par­ents about his mater­nal grand­mother, the show descends into wild speculation.

As with many of the shows, instead of start­ing with the present, and work­ing back­ward, the show skips a gen­er­a­tion. I under­stand that, in terms of pri­vacy con­sid­er­a­tions on the show, but I hope the actual research started with fam­ily doc­u­ments, and with Buscemi’s mother’s birth cer­tifi­cate, for exam­ple. So, they go to find Buscemi’s grandmother’s death cer­tifi­cate in New York records from 1928. This is rea­son­able enough. It’s good to see the star read­ing and eval­u­at­ing the doc­u­ment. From here, Buscemi is directed to the 1880 cen­sus. Why? Did they not find her in the 1920, 1910, and 1900 cen­sus records? If they did search those cen­sus records, it is not men­tioned in the show.

The death cer­tifi­cate says that Jane Mont­gomery would have been born circa 1880. How­ever, when we find an 11-year-old Jane Mont­gomery work­ing as a ser­vant in a house­hold in the 1880 cen­sus in New Jer­sey, there is no ques­tion­ing whether this is the right Jane Mont­gomery. There are no other fam­ily mem­bers and the par­ents nowhere nearby, we assume this must be the ancestor.

In fact, of course, this 11-year-old ser­vant is prob­a­bly not an ances­tor of Buscemi. First, her age is 11 years off what the death cer­tifi­cate would sug­gest. The death cer­tifi­cate has Jane as dying at the age of 48 in 1928. We know from the fam­ily sto­ries that when she died in 1928, Buscemi’s mother was “like 3.” If any­thing, Jane is younger than what is stated in the death cer­tifi­cate, as 45 or so is push­ing the high end of a woman’s fer­til­ity. If Buscemi’s grand­mother in the death cer­tifi­cate and this ser­vant girl are the same per­son, she have birth at the age of about 56.

It is at this point that things really veer off from gen­eral genealog­i­cal prac­tice. The researcher from Ances­try sug­gests that Buscemi should search for shared trees on Ances­try. Now, I know they have a prod­uct to sell, and I give the researcher credit for say­ing that these trees can pro­vide “clues.” How­ever, as soon as they see a fam­ily tree with the expected names of the father, mother, and one of the chil­dren, they assume it’s cor­rect. The next thing you know, Buscemi is off to the Penn­syl­va­nia state archives. Absolutely no evi­dence or analy­sis is pro­vided to sub­stan­ti­ate a rela­tion­ship between Buscemi’s Jane Mont­gomery and the one in the mem­ber chart.

So, the show was a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment. I had been look­ing for­ward to it, as I appre­ci­ate the integrity of Buscemi’s work. In my opin­ion, Ances­try, in an attempt at prod­uct place­ment of their mem­ber trees has done a dis­ser­vice to geneal­ogy. This goes beyond the nor­mal com­plaints of touch­ing the doc­u­ments, or hand-feeding insights to the stars. Ances­try seems to think (per­haps even know, based on met­ri­cal analy­sis of the use of their web­site), that unsourced trees are a key way to get mem­ber­ships. So, despite the fact that doing so works con­trary to the goal of sourced and thor­ough research, which can stand up to crit­i­cal eval­u­a­tion, Ances­try pushes for­ward their trees fea­ture. Pro­fes­sional geneal­o­gists and seri­ous non-profits in the field will have even more to explain because Ances­try has sug­gested jump­ing to con­clu­sions is a valid research methodology.

And I end up won­der­ing what Steve Buscemi’s ances­try really looks like.…

Some Future Directions for Google Books

Google received a painful judg­ment from Judge Denny Chin on its $125 mil­lion agree­ment with the pub­lish­ing indus­try. Judge Chin felt the agree­ment gave Google a “de fac­tor monop­oly.” Google had been sued by the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers and the Authors Guild in 2005. These groups objected to the fact that Google was in the process of scan­ning mil­lions of books for which they were not the copy­right owner, and then plac­ing small snip­pets on the web for search and retrieval.

Espe­cially prob­lem­atic were the mil­lions of orphaned books, that is, books that are still under copy­right pro­tec­tion, but for whom no one is sure who the copy­right owner is, usu­ally because of faulty record keep­ing by pub­lish­ers, pub­lish­ers going out of busi­ness, or com­pli­cated by pro­bate con­fu­sion. Cur­rently, these books have lit­tle value, as they are mainly out-of-print, and only for sale in the resale mar­ket. How­ever, Google has been in the process of sell­ing dig­i­tal ver­sions of books that have been long out of print and had some level of pent-up demand. While each par­tic­u­lar book might not be a best seller, in the list of mil­lions of titles that require no roy­alty to Google, the aver­age num­ber of books that sell would not have to be great for Google to make a profit. In fact, it’s clear that $125 mil­lion is clearly not enough for own­er­ship of such a great chunk of humane letters.

So, where will Google go from here? No one knows. It is even unclear whether their part­ners in the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers and the Authors Guild will con­tinue to work with them to try to come to an agree­ment accept­able to the court, or whether, instead, they will sue Google, now that their agree­ment is no longer in place.

How­ever, I think there are some inter­est­ing options for Google:

  • Google Books will cer­tainly still dis­trib­ute its vast cat­a­log of pub­lic domain books.
  • Google could donate all the orphaned books to a non-profit, such as the Inter­net Archive, with and under­stand­ing that Google could make the books avail­able as they come into the pub­lic domain.
  • Google could nego­ti­ate another, more expen­sive, agree­ment. It’s unclear how this agree­ment could be designed to meet the court’s require­ments for eco­nomic fair­ness, as Google would likely still be far ahead of any­one else in dig­i­tiz­ing the worlds books.

For geneal­o­gists, Google Books has been a book, pro­vid­ing unlim­ited access to a num­ber of pub­lic domain titles, includ­ing law library con­tent, and local and fam­ily histories.

Scott Turow of the Authors Guild pro­vides an idea of the likely direc­tion, and the dif­fi­culty of law get­ting in the way of long-term trends:

Regard­less of the out­come of our dis­cus­sions with pub­lish­ers and Google, open­ing up far greater access to out-of-print books through new tech­nolo­gies that cre­ate new mar­kets is an idea whose time has come,” said Mr.Turow. “Read­ers want access to these unavail­able works, and authors need every mar­ket they can get. There has to be a way to make this hap­pen. It’s a top pri­or­ity for the Authors Guild.”