Archive for the ‘Cool Non-Genealogy Web Services’ Category

Picasa for Family History Images

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

I’m a fan of Picasa, a photo editing program that’s available for free download from Google, and I mostly use it for organizing, tweaking, and sharing scans of genealogical documents.

A Picasa tutorial is beyond the scope of a short blog post, but I thought it would be useful for me share a list of the features I find particularly helpful with some simple directions on how to use them.


Select Images to Appear: You can decide which images appear in Picasa by selecting folders under “Tools” then “Folder Manager.”

Organize Images:
Move images from folder to folder by dragging and dropping. You can also rearrange images within a folder using the same approach.

Rename an Image: Click on an image to select it, then hit F2. Type the new image name in the pop-up box.

Rename Multiple Images: Select multiple images (holding down Ctrl lets you do that) and then hit F2. Type an image name and the selected images will be renamed in sequential order. For example, decree.jpg, decree1.jpg, decree2.jpg, etc.


If you open Picasa and double-click on an image and you’ll see three tabbed menus appear on the left: Basic Fixes, Tuning, and Effects. These menus are key.

Rotate an Image: Click “Straighten” under the “Basic Fixes” tab; use the sliding bar to rotate the image left or right, then click on “Apply.”

Crop an Image: Click “Crop” under the “Basic Fixes” tab; draw a box around the portion of the image you want to save and click “Apply” when done. If you’re not happy with how the cropped image turned out, click “Recrop” and try again.

Tweak Brightness and Contrast Automatically: Click “Auto Contrast” under the “Basic Fixes” tab; if you’re not happy with the result, just click “Undo Auto Contrast.” If Auto Contrast doesn’t work, click on the “Tuning” tab. Move the sliding bars to tweak the image.


Print an Image: Click on the image(s) you want to print. Click on the “Print” icon at the bottom of the page. Use the resulting menu options to assure that the image will appear on the page the way you want it to.

Upload an Image to a Picasa Web Album: Web albums are a great way to keep, backup and share images. Click on the “Upload” button and follow the instructions. Images will be sent to a folder associated with your gmail address and once they’re there you can rearrange them, add captions, and share links to individual images or a folder. It’s a convenient way to back up the files and it’s a nice way to make sure they’re accessible from any place you have Internet access. (The image below says “paid storage” but free storage is also available.)

Emailing Images:
The one thing that hasn’t worked well for me is the email option. I find that the documents shrink somewhere along in the process and the resulting images may not be large enough to be read easily. (If anyone has a solution to that problem, please let me know.)

These are just a few ideas but I’d encourage you to explore the program to discover other useful features and if you discover one, please add a comment to this post.


Picasa and Genlighten go great together! Here’s how:

For lookup providers: use Picasa to enhance the quality of the document scans you upload to your clients. Here’s a tip. Upload both your original scan and a second one that you tweak with Picasa. That way, clients can see the difference and appreciate the extra effort you went to. Also, there may be certain details in the image (handwriting, for example) that are discernible in one version but not the other.

For clients: once you’ve downloaded the images your provider posted to your account, use Picasa to bring out details you might otherwise have missed. Experiment with the techniques mentioned in this post and save different versions of your images with descriptive names. Have fun!

Eternos: Preserving your Tweets, Facebook Photos, Gmail and RSS for Future Generations

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Well, that didn’t take long.

A few weeks back, I posted about Bud Caddell’s idea for a Social Media Time Machine that would “Preserve and Curate My Social Media for Future Generations.” This weekend, I was followed on Twitter by a startup that looks like they’re trying to build exactly that. It’s called Eternos.

What Does Eternos Do?

From what I can tell right now, Eternos lets you backup your Tweets, your Facebook status updates and photos, your Gmail account and an RSS feed of your blog. You can browse through your  “artifacts” using a timeline format. If you’re not into social media, Eternos lets you upload and store standard content such as photos and videos. I’ve let it connect to my Twitter account, and that seems to work fine. It’s cool to be able to access the older tweets that typically won’t let you see. No luck syncing with Facebook yet though.

eternos_tweet_timelineHow Much?

It’s free during the beta period, and they’ll offer the usual “Freemium” pricing plan after that. That typically means that basic functionality will continue to be available for free, while a paid pro account will be needed to access the coolest features (including ones they’ll add over time.) Sounds reasonable to me.

Am I Excited?

I like what Eternos is doing… it seems like it’s got a lot of potential. Right now (as one would expect for a minimum viable product) it does the basic things it needs to do. They’ll iterate based on early customer feedback and add additional capabilities over time, I’m sure.

What I don’t see yet is the “Wow!” factor… the sense that they’re adding something uniquely valuable on top of the archiving function. In my post discussing this idea, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to look backwards in time and see relationships forming and evolving. Will Eternos tackle that? Are they developing some cool social media algorithms up there in Seattle? We’ll see!

Build Something For Yourself

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I’m not a natural at networking. In fact, I find it pretty painful. But I know I need to do it, so I do. And sometimes it pays off.

Genlighten and “Getting Real”

jason_friedLast night I attended the Chicago Tech Meetup at OfficePort in Chicago. Jason Fried (of 37Signals fame) was the keynote speaker. Jason had plenty of cool stuff to say to the crowd of startup entrepreneurs, both the real ones (like Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon) and the simply aspirational (like me). Most of Jason’s advice was familiar to those in attendance who’d already read Getting Real, 37Signals’ manifesto on building a successful web application, or who follow Signal vs. Noise, their exemplary blog.

As Jason rattled off his key doctrines, I mentally checked off which of them Genlighten was adhering to:

  • Bootstrap… start building your product on the side while keeping your day job (check)
  • Charge for your product right away (check)
  • Don’t be afraid to hire non-local people and let them work remotely (check)
  • Don’t take VC money too early (check… though to be honest, we’ve never been offered any)

And then, in answer to an audience question, he said something like this:

Build something you would use yourself, whether or not anyone else ever does.

That one made me pause and ponder for a while. Does Genlighten fit that criterion? Jason was of course referring to Basecamp, the simple yet powerful project-management application that 37Signals built for itself before eventually selling it to others. But Genlighten isn’t like Basecamp.

The Chicken-Egg Problem

Here’s why. Basecamp was tremendously useful from day one. But Genlighten doesn’t start to be that useful until a certain amount of lookup providers sign up and offer their services. And to attract providers, we need clients, who in turn our unlikely to use the site if they don’t see lots of providers. That’s the Chicken-Egg problem. Or, putting a more optimistic spin on things, Genlighten gets better each time a new provider posts a new lookup offering. That’s an example of a Network Effect. Many startups have to climb this hill before they can really take off (think Facebook or Twitter) and we’re no exception.

Eating Our Own Dogfood

On the other hand, we do meet Jason’s criterion: Genlighten has already made my wife’s lookup business easier to manage, and we’ve both used Genlighten to further our own research. For example, we’ve ordered German translations from one of our providers, and Massachusetts death records from another. And with recently-joined providers now offering Maine and New York City lookups, we’ll be submitting more requests in the near future.

But sometimes, I find myself wishing I could just wave a magic wand and suddenly have providers for every county and country.

An Obituary for John Harper Reed

This brings me to this evening’s experience. I attended yet another startup-oriented meetup tonight, this one a casual get-together of Hacker News fans. As I made my way towards the long table set up for us in the back room at the Hop Haus in Chicago, I immediately recognized Harper Reed, the iconic former CTO of local startup success story Threadless. Harper is that rare web celebrity that lives up to his advance billing. I gratefully took a seat across the table from him.

We’ve talked briefly about Genlighten before, but this time Harper volunteered a query. Growing up, his parents had mentioned that he’d been named after an “uncle” from Colorado who had (so the story went) died in a car crash. Could Genlighten help him find out whether the story was true and how the two were really related?

As soon as I got home from the meetup, my wife and I went to work. A simple Ancestry search returned two Harper Reeds who died in Colorado. A USGenWeb site listed a John Harper Reed buried in an Evergreen cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To produce a quick happy dance, we’d need an obituary mentioning a car crash. The obvious sources did not immediately produce one online.

Could Genlighten help? Tonight, unfortunately, no. We don’t yet have any providers for Colorado. They’re out there, I’m sure, but we haven’t successfully recruited them yet.

You Can Help Us Leave Our “Chicken-and-Egg Problem” Behind

To fulfill Jason Fried’s mandate more completely, we’re going to have to work long and hard to build out our provider base. We’re trying to do that every single day. And we’d appreciate your help.

Please take a look at the states where we still have yet to recruit at least one provider. If you know someone in one of those states who knows their local records well, has the time and inclination to retrieve them, and is interested in getting paid to do so, please put them in contact with us. Especially if they can retrieve El Paso County Colorado obituaries. Thanks!

What Keeps Genlighten’s Founders Up At Night?

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

On pretty much any page on Genlighten, over along the far right edge of your browser window, there’s a bright red tab that says “Feedback”. You’ve probably noticed it before. What’s this tab do, and why should you use it? Read on to find out!gs_feedback_tab_isolated

You Like Us! You Really, Really Like Us! (We Hope)

Ever wondered what keeps people who run web startups up at night? Besides the usual stuff, it’s questions like these: “Do people like our site? What do they like? What don’t they like? What can we change so they’ll come back more often (and order the occasional lookup while they’re at it!) What’s frustrating them so they don’t come back? What’s broken, and what works well?” The Feedback tab is designed to help us get answers to these questions.

When Should I Click on the Feedback Tab?

It’s designed to handle four basic situations:

  1. Ideas. In the course of using Genlighten, you say to yourself, “Boy, it’d sure be nice if they’d just add _______.” In other words, you have an idea for how we can improve the site.
  2. Questions. You try to use the site to perform a particular task, and it’s not obvious what to do next. You’ve got a question, and you’d like a quick answer to it.
  3. Problems. Something goes wrong on the site. An error message pops up, or something clearly doesn’t work the way you expected. Basically, there’s a problem we need to fix.
  4. Praise. You have a really satisfying experience with Genlighten and you’d like to tell us about it.

Note that the feedback tab isn’t designed for you to rate our lookup providers or give specific feedback to them. You do that on the Genlighten page associated with your lookup once the provider has uploaded your documents.


If you click on the Feedback tab, you’ll see the pop-up window shown here. This window is generated by a service called Get Satisfaction. They basically exist to help websites offer a simple, useful form of customer support to their users.

How Does the Feedback Process Work?

Notice the four links at the top left of the pop-up window: Idea, Question, Problem, and Praise. Depending on what kind of feedback you want to offer, click on the link and enter your message into the box provided. Sum it up with a short title, then add more details if you want. Click on the “Continue” button when you’re ready to submit your post.

Has Anyone Else Left Similar Feedback Already?

Just in case, Get Satisfaction checks to make sure someone else hasn’t already left feedback similar to yours. If so, you can add your voice to theirs. If not, just click on “None of these fit, post my idea”.


But First, Please Let Get Satisfaction Know Who You Are

Even though you may already be logged in to Genlighten when you click on the Feedback tab, the Get Satisfaction site doesn’t know who you are, so it asks you to log in or create a separate account. There’s no charge for this and you won’t get any unwanted email from them by registering.

To make things quick, you can just register using your Facebook or Twitter credentials. Get Satisfaction won’t spam your friends or your followers, but it will ask you to connect with the service you choose. If you’d rather not go that route, go ahead and create a Get Satisfaction account. You’ll just need to enter your name/Email and choose a password. That’s it!


Once you complete Get Satisfaction’s login or registration process, your feedback is posted for us to see. By default, your feedback is visible to the public as well, though you can keep it private (just between you and us) if you’d prefer.

Thanks for the Feedback!

We hope you’ll use the Feedback tab to share ideas, ask questions, report problems, or give praise to the team here at Genlighten. We sincerely want to make the site better and better. With your help, we’ll be able do just that.

Feel Free to Contact Us Directly, Too

If you’re more comfortable emailing us or speaking to us over the phone instead of using the Feedback tab, that’s just fine. Feel free to email us at, or call us between 8 am and 8 pm Monday-Saturday at 888-845-9990. Thanks!

Sunnygram: A delightful way to keep in touch with your grandparents

Sunday, July 26th, 2009


My wife Cynthia has become a fan of a new service called Sunnygram. It basically lets you send email to your non-computer-using grandparents.

How it Works

You, your brothers and sisters, and your kids compose electronic messages that you want to send to a grandparent (or other friend or relative.) The messages can include text, photos — whatever you’d like. You submit them via the Sunnygram site or simply email them to a special address you select.

Sunnygram compiles your submissions weekly and prints them out in a large font on high-quality paper. They then send your messages and photos to in a bright, attractive envelope to the recipient you designate.

Our Experiences Thus Far

My wife’s been using the service for a little over three weeks now. Cynthia, her sister, and our daughter have all contributed messages and photos. Cynthia’s grandmother in upstate New York has gotten three Sunnygrams, and she seems thoroughly delighted to receive them.

The website is nicely laid out and straightforward to navigate. It has lots of convenient touches that show some real thought went in to the design.

The company has been featured in Seventeen, AARP Bulletin Today, and Time.

The service costs $9.95 per month, and offers a one-month free trial.

To me that sounds like a very reasonable fee for the utility and impact Sunnygram provides. I encourage you to check it out and let us know what you think of it.