Updated: Capture Your World in Your Journal

When I hear someone rant about how email is destroying the personal letter or the disappearance of cursive handwriting in the digital age, I just smile. Thanks to technology – and particularly the app phone with its still/video camera – we’ll leave behind a rich view of our world and our place in it. I love playing with my camera along with an outrageous number of apps for editing and manipulating the photos I take. And, because I no longer have to buy film or pay to develop my photos, there’s no need to wait for the “perfect” shot to take a picture. The same is true for video.

sample journal entry

The specials board at our favorite diner.

I don’t know how many times I’ve wished I had a photo of the soda fountain at McCartney’s Drug Store or the lobby of the Matanzas Theatre during a Saturday afternoon matinee. These and many other places that were part of our day-to-day lives are no longer there, but because they weren’t “special” we never took photographs of them. Today, thanks to my iPhone’s camera and the Day One journal app [Mac – $9.99, iOS – $4.99], I’m not only capturing photos of our favorite places, the camera and Day One automatically add details like date, location and weather for me. No, I’m not going to tap out a description during dinner. That can wait until I’m back home and have time to add details.

So now I have some delightful views of my world captured in my journal thanks to my phone’s camera and Day One. They include a number of not-so-momentous occasions like dinner on the deck at Aunt Kate’s or the dogs at the front window supervising road work along our street. I’d like to think future generations will enjoy this look at our world, but even if they don’t, I will.

Note to Android users . . . check out the Day Journal app [Android – free]. It’s got many of the same features as Day One.

WordPress Redesigns Mobile App

I’m writing this post in the updated WordPress mobile app. The editor has received a nice facelift including the ability to edit image settings without leaving the editor screen. There’s now an image icon on the editing toolbar that takes you right to the Photos app to select the image you want to import. At the top of the editing screen you’ll find the Settings and Preview icons which also make it much easier to access the tools needed to write, publish and manage your content.

editor screen in mobile WprdPress app

A look at the updated editor in the WordPress mobile app for iOS.

Once you’ve inserted an image, tap on it and a pencil icon appears as an overlay on the image. Tap the icon to display the image’s settings. Add titles, captions and alt text, then set your appearance choices. Tap close and you are right back in the editor screen ready to keep typing.

These updates have turned the app into a truly functional editor – and one I’ll be using a lot more often.

WordPress Mobile for iOS is free in the app store.

Archiving Email

Personal Archive BadgeEmail continues to be a primary communications tool for personal, household, business and research communications. Today, a good part of our lives resides in our inbox. Do you have a plan to manage and archive your important email? If not, why not?

Most of us know that we want to archive certain messages but have hit a brick wall trying to determine how best to do it. There are so many different email systems – webmail, IMAP and POP – and email clients – Outlook, Mail, Thunderbird, etc. – that finding a solution can be a challenge. A challenge, yes. Impossible? Not even.

First, you need to have a digital document management system in place. Although you can build your own using your computer’s file management system, having a document management app can make dealing with large collections a whole lot easier. [See Document Management Systems for more information.] If you don’t already have PDF creation software, you will need that too. With these two tools in place, it’s easy to archive your email – all you do is print!

That’s right. To archive a message, just print it using the PDF “printer” most PDF applications install on your system. Mac users can take advantage of the system’s built-in PDF capabilities for this effort. Why print instead of just saving as a PDF? My experience on my Mac has been that printing to PDF will include all the images, backgrounds and design elements while saving to PDF does not.

Mac print to PDF dialog

The Save to PDF dialog panel on the Mac print options pane.

I use Paperless for my document management system and, as you see in the above example, it installs a link in the PDF option of my print dialog. So, all I do is click on the PDF to Paperless option, then complete the index record shown below.

Paperless index panel.

Paperless index panel.

Attachments in messages are not automatically included. You will need to open the attachment and either repeat the “print” to Paperless steps or you can set up a Paperless Droplet on your desktop (File > Create Droplet > Finder Droplet) on your desktop and drag the attachment right from your original email message to the droplet’s icon on your desktop. Once both the message and attachment are indexed in Paperless, you can select them then right-click and choose the Combine Documents option to keep them both together. If the attachment is a media file, gedcom or some other data file, save it in an appropriate location and make note of it on your message’s index record.

Note, too, that since I use MacJournal, it’s also listed as a “print to” app. Using that I can include special messages in my journal with just a few taps. Think of the possibilities that offers . . .

This system works with both web-based email systems and desktop email clients and it includes the messages in with the rest of your personal archive rather than off in a world of their own. When you search your archive for information related to a specific topic, your results will include any applicable email messages along with documents. You can also take advantage of Paperless’s collections feature to “virtually” organize documents. While you only have one actual file stored on your hard drive, it can be associated with any number of collections. You can have surname collections, record type collections or anything else that helps you manage your research.

I recommend that you keep your “original” messages stored on your email provider’s server when at all possible. They do a much better job of backing up their information than even the best of us ever will.

With a bit of planning and a couple of handy tools, your desktop computer can make organizing your life a lot easier. Archiving important email is just part of it.

NOTE: This article was originally posted in March 2013 and has been updated with current information. And, if you’re wondering what that creature is in the message’s photos, it’s my very talented sister’s latest creation – an armadillo jug. 

The Evernote Periodicals Index

Have you wanted to build an index of the articles in your genealogical journals and quarterlies, but found all that data entry more than you could handle? Put Evernote to work and you can have it done in no time.

First, create a notebook for your periodicals index then use the Evernote app on your phone or tablet to photograph the table of contents for each issue you want to index. You’ll need some good lighting, a flat surface and maybe a few weights to help flatten the page while you photograph it. If the resulting image isn’t perfectly flat or perfectly squared, don’t worry. Evernote can handle it and as long as you can read it you’re good.

Each captured table of contents becomes its own note. Use the note title to identify the periodical and issue. That’s it!

Evernote Indexing

Evernote’s search makes it easy to find articles. Evernote can read the text in your image and will present you with the notes and text matching your search criteria. In the example below you see the results of a simple search. The title tells me which periodical and issue to dig out of my files.

Are you getting digital editions of your periodicals? Even better! Use Evernote as your library – saving each issue in your periodicals notebook. In this case the entire publication is searchable.

This article originally appeared in the Moultrie Telegraph.

Short Stories

As the mobile phone with camera becomes more common, it opens even more opportunities to capture those special moments that will become a part of our families’ history. Sure, we all know how to take a picture and email it or post it on Facebook, but isn’t it time to learn how to use these tools so we can do more than just take a picture. We need to look at these devices as tools for telling a story.

Look around and you’ll find lots of inspiration. National Geographic has taught geography to generations of children just with photos and captions. How many times has a photo caught your eye, then the caption grabbed your interest to the point that you actually read the article? Even when it didn’t, they still managed to give you a lot of interesting information in that simple caption.

Barrett Bathing Beauties

What better way for the Barrett girls to show off their new high heels from Grandma than posing as bathing beauties in a swimsuit contest. What if Mom had an iPhone and the Internet to share moments like these with Dad when he was at sea?

Instead of posting your photos to Facebook, consider posting them to a photo-sharing site like Flickr. Why? Flickr stores full-sized images along with the metadata embedded by your camera – including geo-codes identifying where the photo was taken. In addition, you have full control over who can and can’t see them. Using the free Flickr app [iOS and Android], you can capture live events and share them immediately. Both the desktop and mobile apps give you the ability to add titles and descriptions then share copies to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, email and your blog with little effort. You don’t have to worry about documenting date, place and time. The camera and Flickr take care of that for you. Spend your effort writing a caption. Think of it as a short story like those you found so fascinating in National Geographic.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but with a good caption it becomes a story. And a collection of stories can then become a family history.

Future-Proofing Your Family History

Google VP, Vint Cerf, lit up the newsreaders with his talk on “bit rot” this week. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to digital files that can no longer be opened or viewed because the software or technology that was used to create them no longer exists. My guess is that anyone who has been working on computers for ten years or more has their share of bit rot. I know I do.

Yes, it is an issue – especially for personal collections. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to future-proof your digital collections. Most of them are relatively easy and quite affordable. In fact, many of these options should be put to use now to protect you collections from all kinds of disasters – not just bit rot.

Move to Markdown for Writing

Markdown is a standard that uses plain text and simple characters like asterisks and hashtags to identify formatting elements. The key part of Markdown is plain text. Your document is saved as plain text – something that has been around since the beginning of the digital age.

Because it’s a standard, programmers can easily develop programs that can turn your plain text document into a Word document, HTML file for posting online or any number of other formats. The original document remains as plain text and is still quite readable on its own. When technology changes, programmers can quickly develop new routines to transform Markdown documents into the latest and greatest new thing.

You’ll be surprised to learn that a number of existing apps already support Markdown. Journaling apps were early adopters for obvious reasons. WordPress offers Markdown support as well as Tumblr. Even Scrivener supports it. Take a look in your app store for apps with Markdown support and see what’s available for your desktops and mobile devices.

Create Online Media Archives

Create accounts with online media platforms and upload copies of your photos and videos to them. Not only are you building an off-site backup of your collections that protects them from disaster, you may also be future-proofing those files too. Why do I think so? Because it has already happened.

When Apple announced it would not allow the use of Flash technology on the iPad, most video-sharing platforms used Flash to display those videos. Last month Google announced that YouTube would now default to HTML5 format for presenting video on the Web. Many other platforms have also moved to HTML5. Those of us with videos on these platforms did nothing but sit back and watch. Video wasn’t the only technology making the change. Scribd, the document-sharing platform, also made the switch from Flash to HTML5. All the documents in my Scribd library were updated and look exactly like the originals.

What about photos? I use Flickr for a number of reasons. Flickr gives every user 1TB of storage free – that’s roughly equivalent to 560,000 high-resolution digital photos. I can add titles and descriptions as well as metadata like dates, places, people and tags. I determine which copyright license I want for each item as well as setting privacy levels. Unlike some platforms that reduce the size of uploaded pics to save space, Flickr saves my images at their original resolution. Flickr photos are very search-friendly and my public photos have attracted a number of people – including cousins. Flickr has billions of images. Do you think that when a new image technology appears they will dump everything and start over from scratch? Neither do I.

The question with online platforms isn’t will they stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest technology, but rather what happens when they get shut down. I’ve seen that happen too. When the blogging platform, Posterous, was bought by Twitter they didn’t want the blogs. They wanted the talented developers. The announcement that Posterous would be shut down came as quite a shock to many of us. Fortunately, a number of other blog platforms saw an opportunity and stepped up with migration tools to make the move as easy as possible.

I personally think that the biggest threats to personal archives are disasters – equipment failure, storms, fires, etc. By taking advantage of the services discussed here we can be prepared for both situations. There is no be all/end all solution that guarantees all our digital files will survive into the future anymore than there is a guarantee that paper archives will. We do have options – some very good ones – and now’s the time to put them to work.

Wunderlist – Public Lists

Are you a list maker? Me too. It’s gotten even worse since I discovered Wunderlist. This amazing platform allows me to indulge in my list fixation in ways I never though possible.

Wunderlist supports Windows and Mac desktops as well as iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices. There’s a web-based version too. It costs nothing to get started, but upgrading to a premium account ($4.99/mo) adds some very useful features. The basic version does everything you’d expect from a to-do list:

  • maintain multiple lists
  • set due dates on list items
  • share the list with others
  • real-time data sync between devices
  • reminders and notifications
  • include notes on list items
  • supports sub-tasks

Wunderlist Desktop

But don’t just think of it as a to-do list service. It does a lot more. I use it a lot for capturing story ideas. Often those ideas come from an article in my newsreader. Using Wunderlist’s bookmarklet, all it takes is one click. I also keep a list of upcoming presentations with notes on what’s ready and what still needs to be done. My premium account lets me attach files to list items so I can include the presentation file and handouts in each presentation item. Wunderlist supports the iCalendar format so I can subscribe to my Wunderlist feed in my Calendar app and have my deadlines and due dates delivered to my calendar.

I’ve just begun experimenting with Wunderlists’ public lists. I’m still dusting the cobwebs out of the Gazette blog – cleaning up broken links and disappearing images as well as updating out-dated information. Rather than re-write the entire page about digital toolbox resources I decided to give public lists a try. It’s still a work-in-progress but you can take a look at it in action here.

Wunderlist public list

A public list has it’s own online physical location, but it can also be embedded like I did on the resource page. The list title is a link to that location. The list scrolls within the embed window. Notice the icon to the right of some list items? Click on it and additional information is displayed. In this example, I used the Notes field to add more descriptive information about a list item. Even more interesting . . . when I make changes to the list, the embed automatically updates. In a situation like this where things are constantly changing, it’s much easier to update the list than the blog post.

This is just one of the many reasons I am so attached to Wunderlist. If you’re looking for a list that does more, I suggest you take a look for yourself.

Evernote’s Scannable App

Evernote’s new Scannable app [iOS – free] has quickly become the most-used tool on my iPhone. It makes scanning papers, documents and even publications amazingly easy. All you need is some decent light and a contrasting surface to capture beautiful scans in seconds.

Scannable capture

Capturing a page with Scannable on an iPhone

Scannable takes advantage of the contrasting background to “find” the edges of your document. You just hold your phone over the page and watch Scannable do its thing. Once it finds the edges it captures the page, flattens it, straightens it out and makes it available to you for processing. If you’re scanning a multiple page document, just flip the page and keep holding the phone over it. It keeps capturing pages until you say enough by tapping the check mark on the screen. At that point Scannable gives you a number of choices for what you want to do with your newly scanned document.

Your scans can be saved as PDFs or images. You also have several options for what to do with the resulting scan. Obviously, your scans can be saved to your Evernote account, but they can also be emailed, sent via Messages, saved to Photos, forwarded to another app or even printed.

I have been using Scannable to scan my collection of quarterly journals that I want to keep but no longer have room to store. With Scannable I don’t have to rip them apart so they can be scanned. And, even though the pages aren’t flat when I capture them, Scannable does an impressive job of straightening both the scanned page and the text on it. The result is also a searchable PDF document – very handy when I want to find a particular topic or name inside these journals.

Think of what you could do with this in the research library!

Right now Scannable is only available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. My guess is an Android edition won’t be far behind.

Are Blogs Declining?

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, has some thoughts on why so many blogs are seeing declining traffic.

The dominance of mobile usage, social networks, and YouTube, plus attention-competition from apps, are the real problems for web publishers and blog writers.

The social and app revolutions haven’t been purely additive — much of the time people spend on those now has come at the expense of search, RSS, and bookmarks.

Every hour we spend on Twitter or Facebook instead of reading and writing elsewhere is just making this worse — and I’m as guilty as anyone.

Social networks have powerful benefits and are here to stay. But like any trend, we’ve swung too far in that direction for our own good, as both producers and consumers. I hope the pendulum starts to swing back soon, because it hasn’t yet. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does.

If we want it to get better, we need to start pushing back against the trend, modernizing blogs, and building what we want to come next.

Absolutely! I recently read where Google’s search results will soon include tweets. You can’t tell me that won’t reduce blog stats even more.

I think one good step in that direction is installing Disqus on your blog as your commenting system. That way we can build a social network puts the focus on our blogs yet lets us carry on conversations across them all.

Are your blog stats declining? Do you think social networks are the cause?

Blog Comments . . . the New Social Network?

Before there was Facebook, Twitter or Google+ there were blogs with comment boxes attached to each post. These comments were what turned genealogy bloggers into Geneabloggers. We went from being individual bloggers into a blogging community thanks to the comments section. Although comments are still there and do see some activity, social networking sites are now the place to go for conversation. Why is that? I think it’s because it’s easier. One login lets us get into just about any conversation.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to social networks – a lack of privacy. Facebook’s recent research scandal is one of a growing number of “social” attacks on our privacy.

Fortunately there is an alternative – one that also keeps our blogs front and center where they belong. It’s the Disqus commenting platform. Disqus makes it possible to comment at Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress (self-hosted), SquareSpace and a number of other blog platforms using one Disqus account.

And, that’s just the beginning. With Disqus, commenters can:

  • include rich media like photos and embeds
  • carry on real-time conversations
  • comment on-site or from your Disqus profile
  • receive notifications for new comments and replies
  • follow interesting individuals as well as blog sites
  • export and keep their comments.

Oh, and Disqus costs you nothing to use.

Disqus on Tumblr

Disqus conversation on a Tumblr blog post.

The Gazette has been updated to include Disqus as its commenting platform. It was an easy setup and my existing comments were imported too. I’m impressed!

You don’t need a Disqus account to leave a comment here. Disqus will ask you for an email address and password then create an account for you – on the spot. You will probably want to stop by your profile page at some point to complete your profile. Like any social network, this is the page where you upload an avatar, add your blog address and whatever other information you want others to see. Now, when you comment or join an on-going conversation, the rest of us will know who you are.

Your profile is also Conversations Central – the place where you can keep up with any and all conversations that include you. You don’t have to hop all over the blogosphere to keep up with your favorite blogs or comment conversations. Disqus really does revolutionize blog comments.

So now it’s your turn. Take Disqus for a test drive and let me know what you think. Can Disqus facilitate a revolution in online networking?