Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ancestry Slow Today!

If you thought was slow today (Thursday), you're not alone. Starting some time after 11:00AM Ancestry become, at times, slow to the point of uselessness. As of the time of this posting, the site seems to have returned to normal. If you have further problems tonight, check back here for updates.

Also today mysterious ribbons appeared on three of the Ancestry navigation buttons. Someone expressed concern that clicking the buttons didn't seem to do anything different than before. Be assured, nothing is wrong with your computer. The ribbons illuminate areas of the website where purchases can be made. You may find, as I did, that meaningful gifts can be created or purchased in these areas. (Shhh! Don't tell anyone. I'll tell you more after Christmas, but I don't want to ruin any surprises right now.)

Updated 10:30PM

I spoke too soon. When I started trying to use Ancestry Member Trees, I found they were still suffering from problems. The Family Tree view doesn't work. If you add or change information about a person, the Ancestry Hints "Searching..." never completes. If you try to attach an OWT match, the browser suddenly jumps to the home page. Anyone with an HTTP sniffer can see that this is Ancestry's current response to a 500 error. That means a fatal exception prevented the page from being composed for display. Ancestry Member Trees used to handle 500 errors with a special page. I think it said something like, "something went wrong. Would you like to use RootsWeb or one of our other sites instead."

I wonder if part of the problem this morning was that the home page itself was causing 500 errors. The website handled the exception by sending the user back to the home page, which quickly blew up again. Thus, the behavior caused an endless cascade of errors until the user gave up and closed their browser or went to some other website. Granted, the old 500 error handling page shouldn't have been sending users off to RootsWeb for a once-in-a-blue-moon error. But unceremoniously dumping the user back to the home page is not only a confusing user experience, technically, it can cause an endless escalation of errors. Take my example above. I tried to attach an Ancestry Hint matching record. I would rather I get a message explaining that the operation had failed. Give me a chance to try it again or to go to the home page. The page used to and still should explain that the error had been logged and reported (which actually happens).

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tonight's Software Disasters

What an awful evening! I had simple plans; write a little review of my positive experience with Ancestry's new passport database. I found an ancestor's brother's file had signature, photograph, birth certification—even his income tax return! But I saw an advertisement for and thought I'd stop by my local Family History Center (FHC) to see if they had access yet.

The first machine I tried (a Windows 98 SE machine) asked me to select a certificate from an empty list. Thirty minutes. No LANDesk. Move on.

Second machine. Expired certificate. wanted newer Flash player. Multiple install failures. Success via 2nd window, but Footnote now gets stuck "Loading" images. Thirty minutes. Move on.

Third machine. Repeat experience of second machine. Repeat thirty wasted minutes.

Back to plan A; write review. Try to connect to Ancestry via my laptop. Can't get through FHC firewall. Thirty more minutes. This happens sometimes and if the staff cycles the power on the firewall, then my laptop gets a lower IP address that works. But why rock the boat? Certainly I could find something else useful to do.

Back to machine #3 which still has IE6 as its browser. Log on to Ancestry. Boy that new footer looks ugly with IE6. And ads were showing up too far to the right. And the "More Options" popup when editing vitals in an Ancestry Tree is partly off-screen. I hope we start testing with IE6. If I remember correctly, we still have about 35% of our users on IE6. And I hope we fix these problems.

John Pitcher arrived in New York on 7 Oct 1869 on the Manhattan. I thought I'd try and find what day he left Liverpool. Ancestry identified the Manhattan as part of the Guion ship line. I tried Googling various combinations of Guion, Manhattan, the date, etc. and gave up after half-an hour when a near miss on the New York Times archives website crashed their search engine. That was after locking up trying to view a PDF document on their site.

(Have you ever met one of those people that can't wear a watch because their body is magnetic or something? That's what I am, only for software. I can locate bugs in anything. But I digress...)

Then it hit me. Why not try searching newspapers on Ancestry? Duh!

I clicked the Search button at the top of the page. In the Browse Records sidebar... But wait. What is this odd advertisement on the far right? Just a picture of mother and daughter with no words. Why? Intrigued, I hover. Nothing. I click. Nothing. I bet that's a bug too. (I find later it is.)

Meanwhile, with time running out before the center closes, I scroll down to the Newspapers & Periodicals section of the Browse Records sidebar and click on Historical Newspaper Collection. "Guion" is a pretty unique word; I should be able to do an Exact Matches Only search for it as a keyword with the year set to 1869 and find what I'm looking for.

I get 139 matches in the New York Herald, 30 in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, and 5 in the New York Times. That's encouraging. I try Edinburgh first. I click the link for one of the dates and nothing happens. I try another and another. Still nothing. Another and another. What is it about this evening that is conspiring against me? Why was the Ancestry Search engine failing on me?

I view the source for the page and discover the bug. Gigantically long URLs are causing the browser to fail. I fiddle for another 30 minutes and give up searching. Time to do it the old fashion way.

I browsed.

Intelligently, of course. Start at Historical Newspaper Collection. At the bottom of the page, click on New York state. I notice the New York Herald has coverage for 1869, so I select it. I again scroll down to browse by date. I select 7 Oct 1869. I start browsing page by page, hoping the information, if present, isn't on page. 24. On the 2nd image, I find page number 6. Great. Another bug. This isn't the first time I've found a newspaper in Ancestry's collection that has the newspaper pages scrambled. I continue. Image 3 is page 9. Image 4 is page...

Wait! A headline that reads "Shipping News." Down a little ways, subheadings reading "Arrivals. Reported by the Herald Steam Vegies." (I might have misread the last word, but I'm getting too excited to care!) Second paragraph starts, "Steamship Manhattan..." I read, "Liverpool Sept 22..." Yahoo! My evening isn't totally wasted! I'll just attach this page to John Pitcher as the source for his Liverpool departure date...

I click on Save and...


And the Save Options popup is missing the option to save to an individual in my tree!

Rats! Another bug thwarts my last attempt at productivity! I've been told this shouldn't be called a "bug" but a feature request.

Whatever. It's late and I'm going to bed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cool Stuff in the Works

The Ancestry team is preparing a holiday gift for you. Of course, I can't tell you what it is. Renee Zamora got an early look at the new feature. While she couldn't disclose what it is, Zamora wrote that

It was the best item I have personally ever tested for [Ancestry]. I am really excited to see this new enhancement become available on their site. So look forward to exciting things from Ancestry.

I can't tell you when it's coming. But from all the signs, I expect it soon. So start checking back often and expect to see it some time before Christmas.

Ancestry Will Soon Unveil a New Enhancement
Ancestry Will Soon Unveil a New Enhancement
Original animated GIF courtesy

I love working at Ancestry. We do some really cool stuff, and we do it as quickly as we can. We mess up sometimes; don't hate us.

The great thing about free enterprise is that it is a closed-loop feedback system. (The Ancestry Insider must be channeling Randy's engineering background again.) Ancestry acts. The market reacts. Ancestry provides products and services. The market pays for them. Money talks. More money is positive feedback and less money is negative feedback. (Although in engineer-speak, positive feedback is negative and negative feedback is positive. Engineers... Go figure...)

Others Doing Cool Stuff

Ancestry isn't the only one doing cool stuff. Two extremely significant developments have occurred recently.

On his blog, Dan Lawyer of FamilySearch Labs demo'ed a simple mashup using the new FamilySearch API. Click one of three links and the component makes an API call to New FamilySearch and displays details about the associated person. Imagine mixing and mashing components from multiple sources to create your own optimized web application. If the general public is allowed access to the FamilySearch APIs, this could be the most significant genealogical technology development of the year.

Simplified rendition of Lawyer's New FamilySearch Mashup
Simplified rendition of Lawyer's New FamilySearch Mashup (WVR) released a Facebook application which appears to be their website packaged as a Facebook app. Properly architected, this is a powerful paradigm. Imagine a website being able to deploy as an application in multiple portals such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google. Enter your data once and leverage it across multiple universes for multiple purposes. This is another significant genealogical technology milestone.

We Relate is World Vital Record's Facebook application
We Relate is World Vital Record's Facebook application

Ya' gotta love technology! Who can predict where all this will lead to!?!Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

FamilySearch Rollout Update

It's a busy time of year, but I'll steal a few minutes to say hello to everyone and let you now I'm still kick'n.

New FamilySearch trademarkI've added Perth to my list of Temple Districts Using New FamilySearch.

In a previous life I built a development organization that released simultaneously in a half-dozen languages, including Japanese. It adds to the cost and date of the English release, but decreases the overall cost and shortens the overall schedule. FamilySearch seems to have taken a similar approach to the development of the New FamilySearch (NFS) website. This type of process would seem to be ideal for the international needs of FamilySearch owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church). The website currently supports German, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

Whether behind-the-scenes pieces of New FamilySearch have followed this same approach is hard to tell. The actual rollout to temple districts has first verified English, where the majority of temple work occurs, followed by Spanish, which has or soon will become the predominant language of Church members.

New FamilySearch Japanese home pageA spokesperson for FamilySearch revealed that rollout to a temple in Japan will come soon.This is great news. Verifying that all the behind-the-scenes pieces of NFS work for a 16-bit language is a major milestone. Japanese is one of the world languages that have more letters or symbols than will fit in the 256 different combinations possible in the 8-bits of one byte. To implement Japanese, Chinese, Korean and other languages with large sets of written symbols, one must use 16-bit characters or double byte characters (a mixture of 8- and 16-bit characters).

As if to maintain the ying and yang balance of the universe, the spokesperson also informed me that the New FamilySearch (NFS) rollout schedule is lagging a bit. Utah likely won't see it until later in 2008.

Thanks, Generations Network

The Generations Network logoI mentioned in my series on employee/employer blogging that the Generations Network (TGN) employee Hector intended to blog about his work environment. Since then, he's followed through. In a posting he titled "My Employer: The Generations Network," Hector states,

This is the first truly family-friendly, where they mean what they say, company that I have worked for. Everybody else has given lip service to this philosophy, but TGN lives and breathes it. I truly thought these sort[s] of companies were a myth, and was shocked when I found they were for real.

I can verify that TGN really is family friendly. I suppose it took Hector's comment to make me appreciate how rare such companies can be. So on this Thanksgiving weekend, let me say to my employer, "Thank you." Our corporate mission is to unite families across space and time.

It's nice that TGN starts in the homes of its own employees.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Australian NFS Reports Make 20

New FamilySearch U.S. Rollout as of November 2007

Since yesterday, I've received confirmation for Las Vegas and Bismarck. I've also learned of Boston, the 2 Hawaii temples and 2 Australian temples, Melbourne and Sydney. See the latest list at Temple Districts Using New FamilySearch. Others have also produced maps and lists that you might enjoy. See the table at Renee's Genealogy Blog and Miles Meyer's Google Map.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dozen more to get New FamilySearch

New FamilySearch U.S. Rollout as of November 2007While FamilySearch has maintained its official policy of public silence about the continuing rollout of New FamilySearch (NFS), the online LDS Genealogy community was buzzing last week as members of about a dozen districts shared their excitement at receiving word they would get the New FamilySearch within 90 days.

The map above shows in green the six districts already using New FamilySearch: St. Louis, Reno, Billings, Orlando, Albuquerque, and Alberta Cardston.

In yellow are the districts that we think have been announced, although the lack of official announcements makes the list somewhat uncertain. Red indicates districts that have not yet started the conversion process. Utah districts, known to be last, are not shown. (For the latest list, click here.)

Questionable Districts

I find it unlikely that the California Newport Beach district, for which I've heard no reports, will not roll out at the same time as the surrounding districts. The entire state of California may, indeed, be within 90 days of being on NFS. This will hit the new system with a huge amount of traffic.

I've also shown Las Vegas and Bismark in red. Despite reports that NFS had been announced for these districts, I've not been able to confirm these. Likewise, Spokane, which reportedly was going to be #11 to go online, is shown in red. Baton Rouge may be in the same category, although I showed it in yellow. If any consultants (besides FHC directors) from these districts have received the notification email, please let me know!

Purple squares indicate announced temples in the United States and Canada.

Complete States

If Las Vegas and Newport Beach are in the rollout process, then by sometime in February all the temples in these Western states will be online: California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Several states with only one temple are online or will be online by that time: Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Montana, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

FamilySearch vs.

Halloween Happenings

What good is a secret if you can't share it with someone?!? Halloween night I was itching to brag about my secret identity. I just had to tell somebody! But who? I decided, before reading Renee Zamora's blog for the day, to share it with an old spook at the City/County building. He's helped me with some client research, so I kind-of owed him.

So who should call up this morning to tell me she knew my secret identity? Yep. Just don't tell anybody else, Renee, or I'll send my friend home with you again! ;-)

Happy Birthday, Paul Allen!

Employees at The Generations Network (TGN) were reminded of Paul Allen's early role at the company this week when the TGN Treehouse website on sent out a reminder of upcoming birthdays.

Allen's current project is, which he says is doing well. Happy Birthday, Paul!

E-mail announcing Allen's birthday
E-mail reminding employees of Allen's upcoming birthday.

Highland Utah Stake Gets New FamilySearch

Document ID: 102052
Published: 6-Sep-2007

Problem: The Highland Utah Stake is not listed as being in a temple district that is now live or in the rollout process.

Resolution: Members of the Highland Utah Stake have been given permission to register with the new FamilySearch even though their temple district is not live. If they have problems or questions, it is all right to assist them.

FamilySearch Indexing by the numbers

FamilySearch Indexing (FSI) recently hit a new one day record of 24,718 batches submitted in one day. (Source)

FamilySearch Cooperation

The famous Salt Lake Temple
The famous Salt Lake Temple
Copyright 2007, Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The seeds of FamilySearch's cooperation with 3rd party affiliates were sown in the 19th century by a prophet/president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church). (I imagine you're all aware that FamilySearch is owned and operated by the Church.)

Upon the completion of the famous Salt Lake Temple, President Wilford Woodruff offered a dedicatory prayer that Church members accept as the word of God. Part of the prayer supplicates,

As Thou has inclined the hearts of many who have not yet entered into covenant with Thee [that's those who are not members of the Church] to search out their progenitors, and in so doing they have traced the ancestry of many of Thy Saints [members of the Church], we pray Thee that Thou wilt increase this desire in their bosoms, that they may in this way aid in the accomplishment of Thy work. Bless them, we pray Thee, in their labors, that they may not fall into errors in preparing their genealogies; and furthermore, we ask Thee to open before them new avenues of information, and place in their hands the records of the past, that their work may not only be correct but complete also. (Emphasis added.)

The Church and FamilySearch are working to fulfill Woodruff's plea to "open ... new avenues of information [to the many outside the Church] and place in their hands the records of the past." In light of Woodruff's prayer, it makes sense that the Church would, to the extent they can afford it, give their records away to those outside the Church.

FamilySearch vs. Ancestry

So where does Ancestry fit in? I used to think I understood the relationship between FamilySearch and Ancestry. As I've learned more, I've come to appreciate that all but a hand-full of people judge one or the other with very few of the relevant facts.

Sure, I'm disappointed that FamilySearch doesn't interpret Woodruff's prayer as a mandate to give Ancestry all their records for free. :-) Still, comments from Ancestry's Sullivan and FamilySearch's Rencher give me faith that the two parties can find ways to cooperate that advance the different goals of each party and—more importantly to you and me—benefit the genealogy community as a whole.