Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Where are we today with voice recognition software 2017

I made a reference to voice recognition software in a recent post about using the Bluetooth interface that came with my hearing aids to dictate text to my computer. I decided to expand on that topic and write about the current status of voice recognition software in general.

Not too long ago, my wife discovered that she could dictate text messages on her phone. As a result, the number of her text messages has increased exponentially. She has also found a tendency to insert commas and periods into conversations in other contexts. We have also been frequently amused by the misinterpretation of her speech by the voice recognition program built into her phone. 

About once a year, I write a post focusing on the issue of the status voice recognition software.

Despite the development of sophisticated voice recognition programs by Apple, Google and Microsoft, there is still a paucity of programs available for purchase. There are some very expensive, high-end programs for specialized applications such as medical transcriptions. My view of the program set a somewhat skewed by virtue of the fact that I am using exclusively Apple computers.

By the way, this entire post is being dictated using Dragon Dictate (Dragon Naturally Speaking for Windows) voice recognition software. Because of this fact, you might see some strange words and sentence constructions. I tried to go back through and edit the text but my editing isn't always complete. The need for careful editing usually cancels out any input speed gains. Any sudden increase in background noise or if someone in the room suddenly starts talking results in a garbled dictation.

So why continue to try to use voice recognition software? The answer is a little bit complex. I did find out a number of years ago that the Dragon Dictate program that finally gotten to the point where it produced more clean text than errors. Since that time, computers have increased in speed and the program has continued to improve. Unfortunately, the price is also increased. The reason for this is rather simple there are no other competitive products.

If I really wanted to use all of the features of the Dragon Dictate program, I could probably eliminate nearly all of my keyboard interaction with the computer. However, because there are limitations on the internal dictionary of the program and because of transcription errors, it is still necessary to occasionally use the keyboard to make corrections or add in words that the program simply cannot understand. As I noted briefly in my previous post, none of the programs seem to accommodate research or data entry, especially for genealogical research. I have yet to find a program that I would use to fill in a family tree entry for example.

All in all, the program works very well if you enunciate each word separately and distinctly. With a good microphone hooked up to a fast computer, you can dictate as fast as you can speak. But if you speak too quickly, the program will have a tendency to misinterpret some of the words more frequently.

If your typing skills are limited, I would certainly suggest that voice recognition software could be a viable alternative. I would suggest starting with the built in programs available on both Apple OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems. If you decide you can use voice recognition, you will still have to decide if your usage would justify the cost of a dedicated program.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Is there a new computer in your future? Laptop or desktop?


Computers have become ubiquitous. Demographically, genealogists generally fall into the "senior" category. On May 17, 2017, the Pew Research Center published a study entitled,"Tech adoption climbs among older adults." Of course, as time passes, those who are defined as "seniors" continues to change. What were then known as "personal computers" were introduced back in the 1970s. Therefore some of us who are considered to be "seniors" adopted computers going on 50 years ago. However, the Pew Research Center study cited above clearly shows a correlation between computer usage and age. Another recent Pew Research Center report indicates that 77% of all Americans now own a smartphone while smartphone usage among those 65 years of age and older is only 42%.

Although I am not aware of a study supporting my own observations, I see that older adults (seniors) are much less inclined to update their technological equipment. It is not unusual for me to sit down with an older friend or acquaintance to help them with genealogical research and find that I am confronting a computer that is almost 10 years old and an operating system that has never been updated. The resistance to updating technology definitely increases with age.

In many cases, people have the attitude of using the "appliance" until it breaks. Depending on the amount of usage, some computers could conceivably continue to operate indefinitely. My experience, the mechanical parts of the computer fail much more quickly than the electronics. But I seldom keep a computer long enough for it to fail. I am always pushing the speed of the computer. When I buy a new computer that seems fast at first but over time my perception is that the computer slows down considerably. Eventually, I get so frustrated I buy a new computer. Most recently, that cycle runs between 3 to 5 years.

Most people that I find that have very old computer equipment are usually completely satisfied. This is really a dilemma for the entire technological community that relies on people upgrading their equipment regularly. Car manufacturers have addressed this issue by producing new models every year and heavily advertising the features of the new models. Unfortunately, the features of new computers are rather esoteric and harder to understand. Computer manufacturers are not very good at explaining why you need to buy a new computer.

As we approach the end of the year 2017, computer technology is poised to take another major technological advancement. Intel Corporation is announcing major chip upgrades with vast increases in speed.  If you sit in front of the computer all day like I do this announcement means that I will be considering upgrading my equipment again. If you are the average genealogist, you're probably not even aware of the processing chip in your present computer.

If you do find yourself looking at your old dusty computer and deciding to purchase a new one, you may come to the question of whether or not to replace your desktop computer with a laptop. I am seeing up-to-date laptop computers with adequate memory for genealogical purposes selling for around $400 brand-new. I have also seen complete desktop computer systems including a monitor for as low as around $600. For me, the deciding factor as to whether or not to have a desktop computer is the size of the screen. Technically, I could buy a laptop computer and plug it into a large monitor but to buy a comparable laptop and a large monitor and a separate keyboard and a separate trackpad or mouse has never made a lot of sense to me. I choose to have a separate laptop and a desktop computer.

But for most genealogical purposes, if you can manage with a smaller screen, a laptop makes more sense than a desktop computer. One problem I do see with laptop computers is the fact that most of the users do not backup their entire hard drive. With a desktop computer, I can leave the computer plugged into several external hard drives and set up a constant backup program. With a laptop, it is likely that I will back up the internal hard drive less frequently if ever.

We fully realize that there is not a whole lot I can say that will change the buying habits of older genealogists. When it comes right down to it, they are not likely to read my blogs or attend any classes or watch any online videos. But for those who do, I suggest a review of your computer equipment might be appropriate.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Voice Recognition with hearing aids


I have worn hearing aids off and on for years, usually more off than on. I recently got a pair that connects to a Bluetooth receiver and microphone. To my surprise, the Bluetooth microphone connects to my iMac computer and I can use the Dragon Dictate program to do voice recognition. Every once in a while, I write an update on the use of voice-recognition software for genealogical purposes. Because of this new development, I thought it was a good time to do an update. So, you are reading a post dictated by the use of hearing aids.

Voice recognition software works very well if you are accustomed to dictating. In my early years as an attorney, I did a lot of dictation. That generally stopped when I got access to a computer. Because of the way I write, it is much easier to type in some cases rather than dictate. In addition, even with the updated voice recognition programs available, you have to constantly reread everything that you dictate because the accuracy is still not perfect. This is doubly true for me because I edit as I type.

Voice recognition software is indispensable for people who have limited keyboarding ability or skills. People are becoming more accustomed to using voice recognition because of the smartphone apps such as Siri. But genealogical research involves a fairly large number of names and the voice recognition software does not do a good job of distinguishing between similarly sounding names. But for pure text writing tasks such as this post, the software is adequate.

If you wish to experiment with voice recognition software, I suggest using the programs that are integrated into the Apple OSX and the Microsoft Windows operating systems. You can find instructions for using both systems online.


14,228,779 Ebooks and Texts to Search for Genealogy



One of my favorite websites and one that I frequently mention is the Internet Archive or Archive.org. The vast numbers of different resources on this website make it an important research tool for genealogists. As you can see above, they have expanded their holdings of ebooks and texts to over 14 million. The additional holdings of the Internet Archive include the following:

  • 304 billion webpages saved into the Wayback Machine, a website archive
  • 3,553,259 moving images including movies and television archives
  • 3,592,080 audio and music recordings
  • 1,416,000 TV news show clips since 2009
  •  188,853 archived software programs including vintage and historical software
  • 1,502,827 images
  • 175,740 live music recordings including 11,354 Grateful Dead concerts
  • 288,882 media collections
I have mentioned the Internet Archive in 190 previous posts. Of course, that is out of almost 5000 posts. The reason I have mentioned it so many times is that every time I teach a class and talk about the Internet Archive I draw almost uniform blank looks. Most researchers today spend all their time on the big online genealogy database websites and subsequently mostly ignore any program that is not specifically identified as a genealogical resource.

Just within the last week or so, I used the Internet Archive for a digital copy of one of the old Tanner surname books that I needed to refer to. I consistently find genealogically relative material on the Internet Archive that is apparently much harder to find on any other website. A year ago, I even did a webinar on using the Internet Archive for genealogical research.



Using the Internet Archive for Genealogy - James Tanner

The reason for revisiting the topic in this post is that the number of e-books and texts has increased well over 2 million items since that webinar was presented in 2016.



Saturday, August 19, 2017

What are the "Restricted" Records on FamilySearch.org?


The current FamilySearch microfilm issue has apparently engendered a sub-topic concern about the "restricted" records on the FamilySearch.org website. As more people view the records on FamilySearch and as more records are added to the website regularly, more people are encountering notices from FamilySearch indicating that the records are restricted in some way. The restricted records fall into three distinct categories:
  • Records that are only available for review at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, i.e. when the researcher is physically present in the Library.
  • Records that are only available for review when the researcher is in a Family History Center and using a computer connected to the Family History Center Portal.
  • The very small category of records that are only available to researchers who have certain qualifications, i.e. members in good standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is important to understand that these "restrictions" do not come from FamilySearch. The restrictions arise as a result of the following concerns:
  • Privacy concerns
  • Restrictions imposed by the custodians or originators of the documents when they were obtained by FamilySearch
  • Changes in the laws in the country where the records originated
  • Limitations imposed by the contract role arrangements providing for the use of the records by FamilySearch
  • Copyright restrictions
There may be additional reasons why certain records are not available online at all. It is entirely possible that the restrictions imposed by those who originally supplied the records can change over time. As a matter of fact, when FamilySearch and its predecessors began acquiring microfilm records back in 1938, many of the countries in the world today did not exist and many of the countries that existed back in 1938 do not exist today.

I have heard complaints from a very small minority of the users of the FamilySearch.org website who complain that "all the records" are restricted. In fact, very few of the records are actually restricted even including those restricted to viewing within Family History Centers. Over time, some of these restricted records may become more freely available. However, the opposite can also occur; the original suppliers of the records may choose to have them removed from circulation. This occurs entirely independently of any of the issues involving microfilm.

If you take a moment to think about the situation, you will realize that the discontinuance of the shipment of microfilm has nothing to do with the restriction issue. Of the three types of restrictions listed above, each of the restrictions applies to microfilm and are only more evident now because of digitization. There have always been records that were restricted to viewing in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As for the microfilm, use of microfilm was always restricted to  Family History Centers. The only thing that has changed is the fact that many more documents are now freely available online without restrictions than ever before.

To repeat, records with restrictions are not the fault of FamilySearch.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Microfilm Issue: Tempest in a Teapot?



During the past couple of weeks, I have been doing an informal poll about the issue of FamilySearch discontinuing microfilm shipments to the Family History Centers around the world. I have asked easily over a hundred people who are attending my classes and therefore likely interested in genealogy. I wrote about the results of my inquiry in a post entitled, "The Impact of the Microfilm Issue" on my Rejoice, and be exceeding glad... blog. What I found was that very few of the people, only one or two, had even used microfilm in the last year.

But I am finding some issues for the "serious" (for lack of a better term) genealogical researchers. The question is do these issues interfere with our present modus operandi? Well, yes they do. Those of us who are wedded to microfilm will have to transition to finding and looking at digital images. Perhaps we need to recall the time in the not-too-distant past when the only microfilm available was sitting in the Salt Lake City Family History Library (aka Genealogy Library). As time passed, we were able to "order" rolls of microfilm from the Family History Library and then after a number of years, FamilySearch.org began to host "digital" copies of those records. We have watched as that collection of online records grew from a novelty to billions of records.

I think the first thing we need to consider, assuming I include myself in the category of "serious" genealogical researcher, is whether or not we are personally familiar with the existing online record collections on FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, and Findmypast.com? Of course, these four websites hardly exhaust or even begin to exhaust the number of digital images available for research online. What I am finding for myself and after talking to other "serious" researchers is that more and more of the records we need for in-depth research are being digitized and are available online. Are there still going to be records that are only available on microfilm? The answer is a qualified yes. Given the case of microfilm digitation which I understand to be for FamilySearch rapidly proceeding, I would suggest that it is important to check almost daily for additional new records and certainly to check before becoming disturbed about microfilm shipments.

I'm also certain, that FamilySearch will implement some procedures that will allow those who need a microfilm digitized, particularly from the Granite Vault, will have a way to request that the digitization be expedited. Meanwhile, keep ordering microfilm through 31 August 2017 and keep watching the progress of the digitization of the records.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

CAGR or Computer Aided Genealogical Research


I was overhearing a discussion the other day about slide rules. I still have mine on a shelf where I can get to it easily. I also have an abacus. There is something comforting and physical about these devices that is lacking in computers. But the reality of the day is that I am fully integrated into the computer world.

From time to time, I have written about the digital divide between computer literacy and computer illiteracy. Genealogical research and all the activities associated with it can be done on paper, just as day-to-day calculations could be done on a mechanical adding machine, slide rule or abacus. The advantage of doing those calculations on a computer seem overwhelming obvious, but we have yet to begin realizing the potential of the computer over older systems.

I have titled this post "Computer Aided Genealogical Research" or CAGR. It turns out that there are several genealogy societies with similar names, but otherwise the name and the acronym are both made-up. What I see is that, so far, the computer is acting primarily as a substitute for paper and the devices listed above. It is also becoming a primary communication device. But as far as genealogical research, it is still a paper substitute.

Of course, there are a few glimmerings of progress towards CAGR with a variety of record hints from large online genealogical database companies, but otherwise, we are still doing research in the same way with the same objectives as did our predecessors. Let me start explaining this concept with a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose that I am doing research on my English ancestors. Let's further suppose that I use a desktop based computer program to store my genealogical data. Going back a few years, I do all my research in libraries and archives and record what I find in my desktop computer program. Hmm. Let's suppose I move forward a few years and now I have this wonderful internet connection. I can now spend fewer hours in libraries and archives, but I am still storing all my information on my desktop computer.

Time passes, as hypothetically, I become connected with an online family tree program. Despite the changes in venue,  I am still doing what I have always done, I have just moved some of my data from my local, desktop program to an online program. Eventually, because of the development of the internet and the establishment of the huge online database programs, I move more and more of my activities to the internet. But because of fear of losing my data and other considerations, I still have desktop genealogy program.

Because of the development of research hints, where the online genealogy companies suggest connections between my ancestors and the documents and records in their databases, I see the need to put my family tree information on several such programs (i.e. websites). What is missing? What have I gained?

First of all, the computer is still acting as automated paper. I am still doing all of the research, the analysis, the data entry, the recording of sources etc. I see that some of these activities are now aided by the computer systems but only those that were formerly done on paper. Searching for documents has become easier, I make even fewer trips to archives and libraries, but the essence of genealogical research has not changed. Again, what is missing?

The answer is integration. I have data scattered across the internet. I have my family tree in several different online and even several desktop programs. These online programs are very much like warring nations. I can talk to each one of them, but they do not talk to each other. In this case, the computer and its connection to the internet actually interfere with my research. Remember, we are in the middle of a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose I search for information about my hypothetical English ancestors. Let's suppose that the information I am seeking does exist but I do not know where it is located. I am forced to search each separate repository where that information may be located. If the information is sitting in one website, search a hundred others is waste of time, but there is no mechanism to tell me which of the repositories has the information. The internet has essentially become an almost infinite shell game. Despite Google searches, the information I need is really locked up tight in some database on some computer and I have to guess where it is. Presently, I have many separate programs all telling me that they have data for me when what I need is not really there at all.

CAGR should help me find my ancestors' data but it does not yet exist. There is a measure of discussion about "smart assistants" and robo products. We have offensively stupid programs such as SIRI and other such programs that do things like look at the clock or tell me where to buy pizza, but sophistication at the level of active assistance in doing research is almost entirely missing.

I am not here to decry the advances that have been made. I am merely pointing out that we have a long way to go before a computer attached to the internet can do what I do when I am doing research. Perhaps we should start talking about how such a system might work. Perhaps we need to find a way to allow universal access and data exchange of genealogical information between all the presently closed systems. Perhaps I will not live long enough to ever see such systems.