Best Tech of IFA 2018 Awards

Digital Trends reported on the best of the IFA Awards this year, and I took a look to see if there was something of interest to us genealogists.

The IFA is the largest innovative technology product show in Europe, similar to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in the US in January. IFA often features the latest technology products before CES does, as the event is held in Berlin in August, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

If you are shopping for a new laptop, while I still recommend Microsoft’s Surface Pro, consider these IFA award winners: Asus’ ZenBooks, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme, and the Lenovo Yoga Book C930. They look sweet and will be serious competition for the other laptops and notebooks arriving soon.

Ready for a new monitor? The CJ79 by Samsung is a beautiful beast, declared by Digital Trends the “best ultrawide monitor ever since it was launched.” They say that the curved 34-inch monitor (with 43 and 49-inch versions) is even better with Thunderbolt 3 support and a “whopping 3,000:1 contrast ratio.” It will set you back a few dollars, but if you are looking for the best of show, this is indeed a beautiful thing.

They also highlied the Huawei Kirin 980 mobile processor. For a geek like me, their stats on this made my head spin with lust.

…when the Huawei Kirin 980 was announced during the IFA 2018 keynote, it was accompanied by so many eye-widening statistics — from containing 6.9 billion transistors to two Neural Processing Units for onboard artificial intelligence — that it was impossible not to sit up and notice.

Check out the announcement and show details for more awesome new technology.

I can dream, can’t I? At least lust a little. 😀

Mobile and Portable Digitization Experiments in The National Archives

Photographing yearbook with portable studio and digital camera.Genealogists have been making their own digitization and portable (and not) photo studio kits since the beginning of photographic and digital history. While digital cameras and mobile devices make life easier, there is new hope on the horizon to make digitization not only more accessible, but faster and easier.

The US National Archives recently tested a new portable “digitisation on demand” system using a mobile phone and portable lighting studio kit. Both the mobile app and portable system are still in development, but the results could be a game changer for genealogical societies and individuals to digitize their genealogical and other research, materials, and inventories.

The mobile app is currently only available for Android devices, DocScan. There are many apps with similar names, so look for the one from HofApps.

The portable lighting box system is The ScanTent, and consists of a “pop-up” tent with a LED lighting strip box that clips in with magnets, and a platform at the top for the mobile device.

There are a variety of similar apps and light box systems available, so what makes this one different?

First, there is the tent system. The use of reflective surfaces definitely would improve illumination of paper, blocking the ambient light responsible for reflections and lighting color influences. Most portable light boxes feature white and black nylon fabrics, allowing some bounce and absorption properties, but this material appears to be better designed to accommodate paper and photographic images. According to the specs, the included LED light is a non-destructive light source, which means it won’t damage the delicate paper materials used within it, and the lights use polarization filters to reduce reflections. Other systems only offer photo lights, which have their own challenges, but polarized filters may be added to reduce reflections and glare, as can they be added to the camera lens. My only worry is the size. While this unit is designed for books and papers, there is no reason why it shouldn’t work with those precious old photo albums, too delicate and oversized to put on a flatbed scanner. Once they get the prototype set, hopefully they will offer it in various sizes.

Second is the mobile app, which is the truly ground-breaking tech.

According to The National Archives article, this system was tested during the week leading up to International Archives Day in cooperation with The National Archives of Finland and The State Archives of Zurich, all testing and discussing new archival digitization tools. They described the advantages of the DocScan app:

DocScan is ideal for those who wish to work hands free with the ScanTent because it has an auto-shoot feature that will take a photo every time a page is turned. DocScan also gives users the option to upload their images directly to the Transkribus platform, where they can be used as training data for Automated Text Recognition.

Transkribus is a transcription platform which enables the automated recognition, transcription and searching of both printed and handwritten historical documents of any date, language or style. The software is at the centre of the READ project, an EU-funded initiative which aims to revolutionise access to archival material through the development and dissemination of Automated Text Recognition and other cutting-edge tools. DocScan and the ScanTent have been developed by the Computer Vision Lab at the Technical University of Vienna, as part of the READ project. By facilitating the digitisation of historical documents, they too aim to enhance the accessibility of global cultural heritage.

The READ project (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents) is a international program funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. Their programs and funding for development of digitization programs could help bring this technology to your local library, genealogical society, or even to your home.

The article explained how The National Archives have been using Transkribus for Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) software on their collection of wills, considered better-crafted handwriting, for their testing rather than letters and general manuscripts. According to the success stories published by Transkribus, their training model covers multiple languages and handwritten script types, and the Character Error Rate (CER) for most of their projects is about 10%, or 90% accuracy. In a project transcribing the handwriting of Foucault, the French philosopher whose handwriting I could barely read, they had an 8% CER, which means 92% accuracy. The National Archives project with wills gives them hope of similar rates. I’ve found about the same or even worse ratings on some OCR software and apps, but these rates will vary with the complexity of the handwriting, typeface, and document quality.

More traditional glass plate book and document scanner in use at RootsTech in FamilySearch booth.

Traditional book and page scanners can cost thousands of dollars. Home systems range in the hundreds. When you add up all the associated costs, it can easily reach $1000 with a good quality camera (and/or your mobile phone or device), quality lights, stands, etc. Many people work with their flatbed printer/scanners, but the resolution is typically lower than a camera, and isn’t appropriate for delicate archival papers, books, or oversized materials.

Another alternative is to send your archival material out for scanning with a commercial service. Prices have come down tremendously recently as more and more people are using such services, but they still can add up quickly in price, and there is always a risk in transporting delicate materials.

When archives such as The National Archives, libraries, and even genealogy societies confront their digitization options, the costs and human-power to digitize is often overwhelming. Obtaining an affordable and easy-to-use system could inspire more confidence in such efforts.

I currently have hundreds and hundreds of scanned pages of typewritten content, and scores of handwritten material waiting for digitization and conversion to text (OCR). Imagine the ability to quickly and easily digitize this material for my personal use. Throw in easy-to-use and affordable machine translation and I’d be singing very happy tunes.

Reading through the description of some law students building a book scanner from a DIY kit gives you a taste of how far people have gone to avoid the high costs associated with non-destructive book scanning.

Their attempt is not the only one. David Landon’s Easy Book Scanner is estimated to cost less than POUND 200 (USD$260). The Book Scanning YouTube Channel with David Landon offers step-by-step instructions for using plastic plumbing pipes, plexiglass, ankle weights, household light, cheap portable wardrobe with cover, aluminum casserole pan, pipe insulation, two inexpensive digital cameras with infra-red controlled shutters and firing trigger remote and bike tripod mounts. It’s such a simple and clean-looking system, I’m even giving thought to building one myself.

The biggest challenge to genealogy research is access. Access to records and documents. Access to locations housing such records and documents. Access to fund such excursions and access. And access to the information to know that these record and documents even exist. Digitization and open access to archival records are essential to overcoming those barriers to access.

I often hear people claim that they can’t take their research back further than the 1700s because no documentation exists. That’s just not true. It does, but it is in too fragile a condition to digitize. New technology, such as using artificial intelligence technology on the Vatican’s archives, x-ray scanners to read burned and ancient papers at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York as well as around the world such as the 2016 announcement of the oldest hand-written passages from the Hebrew Bible dating back to the 3rd or 4th Century AD, and the Diamond Light Source X-ray facilities in England scanning charred bits of documents from 2,000 years ago, are changing our perspective on our written past. By reaching deep into the past with modern digitization methods, you may not learn something specific about an ancestor, but we are learning more about the past in which our ancestor survived every day.

The more we digitize the records of the past, not only are they more accessible, but they are better protected. We can seal these precious bits of parchment and paper from the ravages of time and use, and explore the digital images and the facts and information within them endlessly.

Products like the ScanTent and DocScan, combined with the power of services like Transkribus, will really transform the digitization process and industry. I sure hope so and I’m looking forward to playing with it myself some day soon.

Here is more information on book scanning and digitization processes.

Taking Your Apps on the Road

Thumb and flash drives on key chain - Lorelle in the Past is a free site offering links to over 300 portable apps including freeware, software, mobile apps, and other platforms that allow you to take your work offline.

A portable app is a travel version, if you will, of a full-fledged application or software, or a version that allows you to work with files from a full-fledged application, either with full functionality or partial, such as Adobe PhotoShop files. These portable apps allow you to take your work or online project on the road by installing them in a synced cloud folder, on a local computer, or install them on a flash, thumb, or portable drive, and work offline.

Consider this situation. You arrive at an archive or library and are told that you cannot take your computer or smartphone into the special collections area where you wish to do your research. Even though you might be doing digital research, you must do it on their computers, not yours. With these portable applications, you can install them on a flash drive or on the cloud, if you have access, and run them without your laptop, taking notes, capturing screen shots, editing graphics, whatever you might need to do while there. Just plug your thumb drive into their computer after you log in, and your programs are waiting to help you work more efficiently, and in a familiar working environment.

In addition, there are many helpful, lightweight apps useful for those using what I call downsized or streamlined laptops like Chromebook or notebook laptops. When there isn’t much storage or power capabilities on the computer, and its key ability is to run applications on the web, these smaller apps work great whether installed on the notebook or on a thumb drive.

You may download the PortableApps software program that allows quick access to downloadable apps and programs, or use the website. With the software program you can easily keep your apps up to date and organize things with folders, favorites, and searches. The majority of these programs are free, but some may have a fee or timed testing use limit.

For genealogists, there are a variety of apps listed that may help you with your research efforts. I’m listing just a few that I think are useful, but your choices may vary depending upon your needs. Some of these may be familiar as you might be using their full versions.

To use these, either install the PortableApps software or download the individual files and follow the instructions to install them on a thumb drive, portable drive, or the cloud. This typically involves double clicking on the app file and ensuring the installation folder is on your portable destination. Label the thumb drive, or if you installed on the cloud, write a note to remind you of where they are and how to access them, and make sure these are with you on your next research adventure. is also available in multiple languages including English.

Tech Tools: Grandma’s Pie Chart

FamilySearch continues to offer and support a wide range of free and affordable genealogy apps. A simple but fun app is Grandma’s Pie, developed in BYU’s Family History Technology Lab and released in 2015. It is free, but does require FamilySearch account. You may upload a GEDCOM file or use your FamilySearch tree.

Grandma’s Pie is a novel name for the app that allows you to view your FamilySearch tree using various pie chart visuals. Also known as Pedigree Pie, the app requires you to authorize access to your FamilySearch account.

It begins by default with you and the geographic birth places of your grandparents, following a direct line up. As clear in my own tree, which is not as complete as it should be in FamilySearch, the majority of my recorded ancestors to 6x grandparents were born in the United States (83%).

Apps - Grandmas Pedigree Pie - FamilySearch Apps - Grandparents Generational View

You may change the starting person by using their FamilySearch Person ID number.

Switching to my favorite brickwall, Lula Bell Pinder, Grandma’s Pie chart shows her parentage as mostly Canada West. If I turn off “Extrapolate Unknowns,” as there are many, I see the gaps in my research on her part of the tree, mostly due to the brickwalls I’ve encountered.

Apps - Grandmas Pedigree Pie - FamilySearch Apps - Lula Bell Pinder - Grandparents Generational View

Click on one of the colored pie pieces to see who they represent. In this example, Lula Bell’s mother, Elizabeth Brunner is highlighted, helping you to see where people are on the chart and see who is missing.

Apps - Grandmas Pedigree Pie - FamilySearch Apps - Lula Bell Pinder mother Elizabeth Brunner - Grandparents Generational View

You then have the option to view that person in another pie chart or to visit their profile page on FamilySearch.

In an article on Grandma’s Pie by Jill R. Decker, the app shows countries up to seven generations. By turning the Extrapolating Unknowns, as I did above, it is easy to see where ancestors are and aren’t identified, and work needs to continue.

The app doesn’t do much else, and many online services offer such pie chart views with DNA results and other charting services, but FamilySearch doesn’t offer these. This app adds the fun visual functionality.

Whether to help you find the missing pieces of your genealogy research on FamilySearch or in a GEDCOM file exported from your genealogy program, or to provide a visual for friends and family or your website or social media, Grandma’s Pie is a fun additional to your tech toolbox.

Check out the other interesting and handy web apps and tools on FamilySearch.

The Technology of the Pencil

Pencils from Around the World - Collection and Photograph by Lorelle VanFossen - Lorelle in the Past Lane.

One of my students asked me to define technology. After a few moments of thought, I held up a pencil.

“This is technology.”

She laughed.

I teach web technologies for web publishing, design, and development. I specialize in WordPress, blogging, and social media. I’m a techno junkie of the highest order. My students wish to follow my path, but I’m already several decades ahead of them. To her, a pencil was “old school,” not like computers and driver-less cars run by computers.

“Before the pencil, humans carved words in stone, wood, plants. They used ink on quills of feather, metal, and wood. It was hard work and messy. The pencil, and the pen, revolutionized the world. It gave people a way to communicate and preserve their thoughts and ideas more efficiently. It democratized knowledge.” She stared at me. She should have known the answer to the question would come with a history lesson. “The pen and pencil allowed anyone, no matter their class, income level, or education level, to write. It brought literacy to the world.”

“But it’s not technology.”

“What’s your definition of technology then?”

“Machines that improve our life.”

“That’s right, but be more specific. The definition of technology is anything that improves our way of life. It could be the pen and pencil, the wheel, the dishwasher, the computer, or the space flight.”

As I work on this site, I keep hearing her voice in my head. “But it’s not technology.”

The goal of this site is to talk about technology for the modern genealogist. Sometimes I feel like I should defend myself when I offer tips and techniques for genealogical research that involves pen, pencil, and paper, with no computerized gadgets or bells and whistles to impress. Yet these are technology. So are the gadgets. They all improve not only our way of life but our family history research.

Recently, Archeology Magazine reported on research by Washington State University on the inequality of human societies. They studied the economy between 9000 BC and AD 1500 to measure the disparity of the income gap between rich and poor. They found that economic division grew as society became more technological. As people became more industrious, turning beasts into instruments of agriculture, allowing farmers to increase the area of land they cultivated for food, thus increased food production. The agricultural industry developed, feeding people beyond what a person could grow themselves. Before, if you wanted to survive, you did it yourself. Everyone was basically equal. Technology, even the use of animals, changed lives, improving it for some, but not always all.

I will never forget the day when my father announced that his shipyard engineering staff were about to receive their first computers. They would finally be able to work on their drawings and plans on their computers. Like a kid, he was so excited. We had a Commodore computer which everyone shared (5 kids and two adults), but this was a “real” computer. It promised easier working conditions, project management, and faster production times.

A couple months later, he came home tired, frustrated, and cussing up a storm. The computers were finally installed at work. They were so excited, watching the workers carry in the monitors and CPU units, fiddling with all the wiring. The activity was fascinating and the prospects promised of improved work conditions delightful, until they learned the price of the new technology. The memo arrived just after lunch. Their secretaries were going to be laid off. They were no longer needed. They’d been replaced by the computers.

For my father, it was the end of his world. He hadn’t quite figured out the computer process or system and relied upon the secretaries to help him out. And he was semi-illiterate. He could read, but he couldn’t type and couldn’t spell. Getting a handwritten letter from your own father with your name misspelled is an eye-opening experience in this age of literacy. I didn’t realize until then how much effort he’d put into concealing it. The secret was at risk. The computer brought great opportunities to his work life, but years of relying so heavily upon the secretaries to cover for him gave him nightmares.

I did my best to teaching him how to type, sitting with him for hours at our home computer, teaching him the basics. I became the teacher of the family at a very young age, embracing modern technology quickly, taking everything apart and putting it back together (successfully) even then, then showing others how to do the same. He struggled, and managed to hold onto his job for quite a while, until the ship building industry couldn’t hold its own in Seattle.

Secretaries were a form of technology because they improved the quality of life and work for busy employees. Today, computers have replaced them, and secretaries went on into new jobs, embracing new technologies or being hired as personal assistants, same job, new name. The computer is today’s pencil.

As I drive down the past lane, my focus will be on technology in all its forms as related to family history. It could be the pencil. It is likely the computer, printer, and scanner. It is about the web and online access to records and research techniques never before so readily accessible. It will be about the techniques in modern genealogical research, including online databases and archives, educational opportunities, and ways to preserve that research, and your family’s history.

As we share the journey, remember the pencil. Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that changes not only our lives but the world. And we must adapt.