Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Newspaper access solved

I've recently written about my experiences doing family history online, and if you've been following my stuff more generally, you'l also know I use Trove, the NLA's  digital archive quite a lot.

What I don't have access to is UK newspapers, or I didn't until now.

Now I live in rural Victoria, and while I knew the State Library had access to a lot of these online, I thought that you had to visit the State Library itself to use some of the resources. (I remember discussions with database vendors in the early days of CDROM networking where access was restricted to a block of ip addresses - something they called access within a single building and I called frustrating).

Anyway I discovered that the State Library provides networked access to a shedload of resources including the Times and the Irish Times archives, but you need to (a) sign up and (b) prove you are a Victorian resident, usually by showing some ID to the membership team at the State Library, or by a more complex postal procedure.

Well, I was in Melbourne for other reasons, so I made time to go to the State Library and sign up for resource access.

I was so curious to see if it worked, that when I got back to our AirBnB apartment, I tried it using my iPad over our 4G modem - and it just worked!

Having spent a good part of my professional life trying to get these things to work I was quite astounded at just how good the service was (mind you, to get the best you probably need something with a little more poke than an iPad).

The service looks to be provided via Ex Libris, nothing special there, and uses the standard ProQuest databases. And it works.

I'm quietly happy ...

router spam (sort of)

I've written before about our new 4G portable router, including its ability to be used like a pager to receive SMS requests.

Well, a few days ago I turned it on, and it told me I had a new SMS. I assumed it was a warning of a planned service outage, so I clicked on it to see if it was relevant to where I was.

It wasn't.

It was an SMS spam message telling me that there was an inheritance waiting for me and to email a totally unlikely looking email address.

Needless to say I didn't ...

Monday, 7 January 2019

I bought an ipad ...

Until a few weeks ago I was possibly almost unique in the western world for never having laid a finger on an ipad in any sort of serious way.

Sure I'd fondled them in an Apple store, looked at them when people showed me documents and images on them, but I'd never used one or owned one.

Not that I was tablet agnostic - I bought myself an Android tablet in 2011, and while I've been through several since, for a long time they did the job - as a notetaker, for research work in public libraries, and a few other tasks.

While most people use a tablet to surf the web and check their email in bed, I mostly use a Chromebook - principally because it has a keyboard and I can write on it, so my tablet use has gradually declined.

At the same time, I've begun to listen to podcasts more and more, and I've got some reference material in pdf's which is mostly digitised nineteenth century directories (family history folks!) and so on.

And with it's sudden wifi wierdness my Pixi wasn't cutting it anymore.

So I bought myself a refurbished iPad mini. They're reasonably cheap, as a lot of them come out of point of sales devices, and since they've usually spent a large part of their lives in a protective housing, they're usually in pretty good order.

To it, I added the logitech canvas keyboard - they were on discount on amazon, I only paid around fifty bucks for mine, and that's given me a device about the size of an A5 notebook on which I can type, listen to podcasts, and do web based stuff, be it research or fun.

I've yet to use it for serious typing, but I've downloaded both a plain text editor and a copy of pages, and I guess I could always use Google docs if necessary.

What I can report is for scrolling through things such as the 1865 Scottish County directory - all 500 odd pages of it - iBooks certainly does the job better than anything I've found for Android, and of course one gets the Apple niceness - one suspects that some of the people who put the environment together wear ties and nicely pressed chinos - which after linux, windows and android comes as a pleasant change ...

Monday, 31 December 2018

Doing family history online ...

As I've written both on this blog and my other website, I've been spending time on family history tracking down some unanswered questions I had about my antecedents.

Before I started on this quest, my images of amateur genealogists was that of people wearing tatty grey cardigans sitting hunched over an old computer surrounded by piles of mouldering scribble covered printouts in some dim and dismal corner somewhere, and not at all like these slightly glamorous ones you see on tv shows like Who do you think you are?

I don't own a grey cardigan, and my computer may be overdue for replacement, but I've come to realise that it's actually quite an interesting little research hobby to keep the grey cells firing.

That is, if you do the legwork yourself.

There a quite a few sites out there that want to provide you with an end to end service and make it easy for you to trace your ancestors, and I guess, if they were scattered across the world and you really didn't know anything about them it might be a start.

These services are however very reliant on existing digital archives of birth, deaths and marriages, not to mention newspaper archives, plus archives of useful things such as military records.

The assumption also is that your ancestors hail from somewhere with a reasonable functioning public records system that goes back a reasonable time in the past. As I found while researching the story of Robert Burns Clow, this can sometimes mean only to early last century. Paper burns, or people make unwise decisions about retaining information.

So, broadly speaking, your ancestors need to come from the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ or the US and if you are looking for ancestor from much before 1850 you've really got to hope that the parish registers have survived, and even then it is not always an easy guess where they might be. Despite living his whole life in Dundee, my grandfather's first marriage was registered in a rural district of Angus, presumably because that was where Catherine's (his first wife) parents lived.

Likewise, I discovered, that as well as his sister Annie, he had another sister, Lizzie, but she was a schoolteacher in Perth.

In other words, you have to know the geography of the area, and also have search skills, such when I tried to work out whether there had been a farm at Clocksbriggs, only to discover it had been a rural railway station that closed in 1955. Google maps and Streetview didn't help, but fining online digitised copies of nineteenth century maps did.

However, based on my limited experience of working with a single family, my mother's, all of whom hailed from a fairly circumscribed area of Scotland, you can do it yourself without resorting to the expensive paid for services.

Scotland's People, the Scottish Government's genealogy site, charges to download copies of register pages, but the cost is quite modest, a little under A$3 a document, and then you have the fun of deciphering nineteenth century handwriting - usually straightforward, but sometimes less so.

The National Library of Scotland doesn't charge for access to its digitised town and post office directories, nor does Historic Environment Scotland charge for use of its Canmore database of historic sites and images.

The British Newspaper Archive, run by the British Library, doesn't charge to search its indices, only to view an article. The cost of forty prepaid page views is again quite modest, around A$35. (If you are looking for entries in Welsh newspapers, remember that the national Library of Wales's Welsh papers online archive is free and comprehensive.)

Given that newspapers really didn't take off until the mid nineteenth century as a mass medium, the practice of putting hatched matched and dispatched notices in the local paper didn't really become common until after 1860, and even then only the aspiring members of the middle classes did it.

If you're family was simply hardworking people trying to get on, they probably won't feature in the local paper unless they were someone in the community such as a minister, a bank manager, or a member of the kirk session - that is unless they were arrested for public drunkeness, theft, violence,  or some other misdemeanor.

The only other reason they might feature is if they had an advertisement - one example I've come across is a music teacher advertising their services - all these Victorian children being taught to play the piano - the other is if they had a shop.

Otherwise no, not unless you come from what Jane Austen would have called quality and other people genteel folk.

So, you don't need to use one of those paid for heavily advertised services. In fact it may be cheaper not to, as well as being more fun.

Keeping track of everything is a problem.

About the only decent software package I've found is Gramps, and as I've said it's not the most intuitive, but its worth persevering with - I started from a position of loathing to move to one of grudging respect - it's powerful.

However you also need to use something such as Evernote to organise all your suppletmental material - as you would with any research project, plus some sort of notekeeping solution - Evernote will do both.

There are other solutions, J's cousin, who is an amateur genealogist and a former museum cataloguer still uses 6x4 record cards, for the absolutely killer reason they are easy to reorder if some new information changes the order they should be in. A wiki would also let you do this if you want to be high tech about it.

So, it's fun, easy to do online if you have ancestors that conveniently came from the right place. Like any hobby it's going to cost money, but it doesn't need to be so expensive if you work with the primary sources yourself ...

Friday, 28 December 2018

Digital family history

Over on my other blog I've been writing about what I've been doing over the holidays delving into my own family history.

Now, it's probably not terribly interesting to anyone other than myself and a few nephews and nieces. but one of the most important aspects of this work from a digital archiving point of view is that I've been able to do it using only online digital resources and do the work from my study on the other side of the world.

And this of course is because the National Record of Scotland (previously the National Archives) has done a tremendous amount of work in scanning and indexing the births deaths and marriage records, and in work done by both Historic Environment Scotland in digitising the online records of Scotland's archaeology and environment, and the National Library's digitising old maps, not to mention the work by regional archive services, and the sheer range of material available via Wikipedia - I'm saying via, because it's often the external links that add value, rather than the content itself.

I often used to dream of a world where resources were easily discoverable and linkable , and with the aid of tools such as Evernote and OneNote we seem to be getting close - at least as far as Scottish family history is concerned.

My only real frustration with the process is the Gramps genealogy tool - it's clearly very powerful but for whatever reason, I don't find it totally intuitive, but, for the moment it does the job.

Given the multithreaded nature of the material and connections probably starting a little private wiki with both context pages and links to the documents would be the next step - that way I would end up with shareable living revisable document ...

[update 29/12/2018]

Ever the experimenter, I took a look at one of these online ancestry sites, in this case MyHeritage, in comparison with Gramps, and certainly the interface was slicker, it had a nice consistency checker and it had a good set of prompts for building and populating the family tree details, plus rather a nice way of building a biography for each person in the tree.

Once you'd put in enough details it also scurried off and tried to find a match to the people you'd listed in other family trees - I know because it found a family tree that my brother had started and abandoned three or four years ago.

Nice features.

Also it would let you import data in GEDCOM format. but crucially not merge it into your existing tree, nor export your tree using GEDCOM.

Certainly, it was definitely slicker and easier to use, and the matching with data in other trees was quite good but I didn't like the way it locked you in, nor the way, despite being run on a freemium model, it continually touted signing up to a paid subscription, which admittedly it claimed gave you access to a whole range of online resources, which I'm sure it does - as I havn't signed up I can't comment on the breadth of resources signing up gives you access to.

I don't want to seem totally negative about them - they've done a lot of work on building histories of tribal peoples in PNG, and as an Israeli company, a lot of work constructing the family histories of holocaust survivors.

However, since I'm having fun learning how to do genealogical research from primary resources, I already  have access to most of the resources I need, and I prefer the pay for use model that Scotland's People have adopted, I've decided not to continue with them and will plough on working with Gramps.

What I will do, is that once I've done as much as I want with it is upload the material I've assembled to let other people reuse it as they wish

Saturday, 8 December 2018

An android wifi wierdness ...

I came across a really weird problem the other day.

My Alcatel pixi tablet that I bought in 2015 for note taking no longer sees our home network,

Other android devices  (mostly Samsung, but including the no name android tv decoder) see it just fine.

Over the past few months I've done two things

1) swapped the home router but kept the name and password the same
2) locked the 2.4GHz network to channel 13 to solve a problem with our Fetch box

otherwise nothing.

So I turned the router on and off. Still no connection.

I then reset the tablet back to the factory defaults. Still no joy. Strangely it doesn't even see the wireless repeater we have in the lounge room suggesting that it's some really odd driver problem.

It will however see the Huawei portable internet router, and works just fine.

Interesting J's old  (like 2012) Lenovo Ideapad doesn't see the home network either pointing to it being some wierd driver problem that affects some older versions of Android - maybe they just can't see channel 13...

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Travelling with the new 4G router

Well, we're back from a 10 day road trip to Bendigo, Halls Gap, Port Fairy, and Leongatha.

Apart from Hall's Gap, where our accommodation came with an individual Optus wireless NBN connection we've been dependent on our new Huawei unit for internet.

Now I didn't carry out any scientific tests but our usage involved a MacBook Air and a Samsung tablet simultaneously surfing the web, reading email, twitter stuff and some other stuff like Pinterest.

Unusually we didn't bother uploading any pictures this time so I can't comment on speed for that, but in practice performance was not markedly different from that over the complimentary wireless NBN connection in Halls Gap, or indeed markedly different from our 50GB FTTC connection at home.

Now if we'd streamed video or done something else bandwidth intensive it might have been a different story, but for general on the road use it was absolutely fine.

Occasionally if a web page was slow to load it would throw you into the unit's management page, but that was usually the downstream sites performance not the link itself - that was fast enough for most purposes.

And that's it - most purposes. Once the link is fast enough it's the performance of the downstream servers and your local host that governs your experience, not the link.

For example, I had to download a 30MB pdf document over the NBN service we had access to in Halls Gap. Prior to that I'd have called the service adaquate - which it was until I tried downloading and it was like going back to the early days of ADSL - and remember I was downloading. Uploading would have been worse.

I didn't have occasion to try a similar upload or download over the 4G link, but I suspect that performance might not have been stellar.

Battery performance was good - it lasted something similar to the advertised 11h. On standby the unit needed a kick to wake it up, but again that's perfectly understandable.

So, in conclusion, we have a good well performing unit that's fit for purpose ...