Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Internet? Bah! (NEWSWEEK: 27 Feb 1995)

by Clifford Stoll : NEWSWEEK : His Prophecy and the Key to the Future : (How to bat 1000)

After two decades online, I'm perplexed. It's not that I haven't had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I've met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I'm uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Consider today's online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it's an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can't tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.

What the Internet hucksters won't tell you is tht the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them--one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, "Too many connectios, try again later."

Won't the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.

Point and click:

Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We're told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you've got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames--but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I'll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.

Then there's cyberbusiness. We're promised instant catalog shopping--just point and click for great deals. We'll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet--which there isn't--the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

What's missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who'd prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where--in the holy names of Education and Progress--important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Computerized Family History and Genealogy Conference

The Ancestry Insider
The unofficial, unauthorized view of the big genealogy websites. and aren't the best communicators, leaving a need for the Ancestry Insider. The Insider reports on, defends, and constructively criticizes these organizations.

[While I'm not a fan of train-of-thought writing, you may never hear about my attendance at this conference if I don't take a shallow dip into it.]

I’m here at the conference. I’ve got laptop power but no Internet. I’ve got syllabus, but no CD. Maybe that was an extra cost item. They’ve announced they have 700 attendees. I’m seeing lots of familiar faces, but as usual I can’t remember who they are. Well, Alan Mann I know. Alan is Manager of Information Services at the Family History Library.

They tell me I can exchange by printed syllabus for a CD! Paul Allen is the keynote speaker this morning and Tim Sullivan is this evening. I'll try and post on their presentations later.

Well, it’s lunch time. Renee Zamora was good enough to watch my laptop for me while I ran out and grabbed a bite to eat. (Thank you, Renee.) She, along with the other smart people, had brought a lunch. With the Morris Center gone (along with most of Deseret Towers—I used to live in V-422) the line at the creamery was humongous.

The New FamilySearch track was held in the basement auditorium of the Bean Museum, which probably seats less than 220. I suppose they put the NFS track there because they feared no one would bother to cross the parking lot for any track of lesser interest. But last fall they filled the 500 seat conference center auditorium for some NFS classes. Many were turned away from Jim Greene’s class this morning. The room had no wireless Internet for attendees nor wired access for presenters.

Gordon Clarke acknowledged my post on PAF's mostly dead status and asked that I quote him as saying, "I kind of see new life as being breathed into PAF. I don’t think PAF is dying, I think it is getting a second life." Clarke, consider yourself quoted. I'll explain more in a later article. I think the headline will be, "FamilySearch's Gordon Clarke announces the resurrection." (Teasing genes run deep in my family.)

Two Ancestry Presidents Contrasted

by AncestryInsider
The two keynote speeches at this year's BYU Computerized Family History Conference gave attendees the unique opportunity of seeing two of's CEOs side by side. Paul Allen was Ancestry's first CEO and Tim Sullivan is the current CEO of Ancestry's parent company, the Generations Network (TGN).

Paul Allen
Paul Allen began by pointing out the fallacy that genealogy is second only to pornography in Internet usage. "We’re lucky if genealogy is in the top 50," said Allen. "We haven’t even scratched the surface of getting more people involved."

Allen presented an interesting retrospective on his history, the establishment of, and what he has done since, including current projects, and (For a similar recitation, watch Allen's Entrepreneur Lecture last fall at BYU.) Until just recently Ancestry and FamilySearch were the only organizations investing in this market. World Vital Records recently hit 1 billion names online and have another billion in the pipeline. "I'm happy to be back," said Allen.

"FamilySearch Indexing is the most positive disruption in the genealogy industry," said Allen. While he went on to explain that disruption was something that provided increased value at decreased cost, no doubt Allen is well versed in Harvard Business School's Clayton M. Christensen and his ideas around disruptive technologies.

Allen mentioned four problems that need to be addressed to allow genealogy to be more widely adopted. Genealogy is too expensive. It takes too much time to do. It needs to be easier. And it’s not fun enough for young people.

"Social networking is the biggest key to extending the reach of genealogy beyond those currently doing it," Allen said. "Let's share really cool stories and pictures." We can get millions more interested in family history.

Tim Sullivan
Very few people attended Tim Sullivan's key note, but those that did were treated to an unprecedented look inside the Generations Network (TGN), according to session host, Kory Meyerink.

"How do commercial players advance genealogy?" asked Sullivan rhetorically. "Very simply; by spending lots of money." Sullivan said TGN invests over $100 million a year providing services and growing the number of people involved in genealogy.

Commercial players help get original records digitized and online according to Sullivan. At current rates, it will take over 2,000 years to digitize all of NARA's holdings. (The New York Times) Records throughout the world are perishing. In the past 10 years TGN has spent, not counting indirect costs, almost $70 million acquiring, imaging and indexing content and continues to spend over $10 million annually.

Sullivan said that TGN will spend over $40 million in 2008 around the world trying to get more people involved in genealogy. More people not only means more revenues for commercial companies, it means more collaboration, more user-uploaded content and more indexing volunteers.

Anticipating the question, Sullivan pledged to keep RootsWeb free despite inclusion of in RootsWeb's domain name.

Asked about full availability of Ancestry in Family History Centers (FHCs), Sullivan noted availability in the regional FHCs and acknowledged ongoing discussions. "I hope we can get it available again."

"We think what FamilySearch has done is fantastic," Sullivan said in response to a question about his company's recent volunteer indexing announcement. He didn't add any details beyond those in the short announcement.

Treasures at FamilySearch Record Search

Treasures at FamilySearch Record Search
From Kimberly Powell, Kimberly's Genealogy Blog

It's been nine months since FamilySearch Labs launched the Record Search pilot, and the site continues to grow at an amazing rate. It's a treasure for all genealogists, with plenty of free family history records for those concerned about the budget, and excellent image quality and indexes for researchers looking for alternative access options.

Indexed records at FamilySearch Labs include the 1850, 1880 and 1900 U.S. Census, plus the mortality schedule and slave schedule for 1850. Other indexed census records include the 1855 and 1865 Massachusetts State Census, and the 1895 Argentina Census. You can also search Freedman Bank Records, New York Passenger Arrival Lists, and deaths from Ontario, Ohio, Georgia, Utah, Texas and West Virginia. There are also a number of local records, such as Cecil County, Maryland Probate Estate Files and christening records from Cheshire, England. Most of these transcriptions are also accompanied by digital copies of the original microfilmed record. Some, such as the 1850 U.S. Census, are only partially indexed.

Additional records that are available in image form, but have not yet been indexed, include:

1930 Mexico Census
1905 Wisconsin Census
Vermont Land Records
Parish Registers from Brandenburg and Posen, Germany
Church Books from the Czech Republic
Bishops' Transcripts from Durham, England
Colbert Funeral Home Records, Fluvanna County, Virginia
Coutances Catholic Diocese Records from France
Catholic Parish Records, Diocese of Belleville, Illinois

That's a nice selection of records, don't you agree? And you sure can't beat the fact that FamilySearch also offers them for free.

Aside from the free access, FamilySearch Labs is often one of my first research stops because I'm in love with their indexes. Although index search doesn't offer as many options as at, I can often find people more easily because the names are more often indexed correctly. FamilySearch Record Search indexes are especially accurate (although not perfect, of course), because information from every record is extracted by two different people. The two extractions are then compared for accuracy. If they do not agree 100% then an arbitrator compares both extractions against the original record and makes any necessary changes.

If you haven't yet checked out FamilySearch Labs , you can register online. Most registrations are processed almost immediately so you can start searching quickly. Click on Record Search from the main page at FamilySearch Labs. If you like what you see (or even if you don't), be sure to use Feedback to let them know!

Monday March 24, 2008 |