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Louis Kessler’s Behold Blog

The World’s Oldest GEDCOM File? - Sun, 17 Aug 2014

While preparing my presentation of Reading Wrong GEDCOM Right for the Gaenovium Conference, I wanted to see if I had in my collection of over 600 test GEDCOM files some early GEDCOMs from the pre-GEDCOM 5.0 era.

I searched my files for some of the pre-GEDCOM 5.0 tags outlined by Tamura Jones in his GEDCOM Tags article. I didn’t have any such files. So I searched the web. I was surprised to find just one single file, It was among the collection of GEDCOMs at the now abandoned Genealogy Forum site.

The file I found was gedr6127.ged and the start of it looks like this:

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The file information for this file at Genealogy Forum states that it was uploaded by Jean Hudson Masco on April 21, 1997. This is well past the introduction of the GEDCOM 5.0 draft in December 1991. The file header states that it was created with PAF, so the file must have been created by what in 1997 was a very old version of PAF. The VERS tag is not given in the HEAD section of this GEDCOM, so the version of PAF cannot be identified, nor can the version of GEDCOM that this file represents.

This was a very exciting find for me, sort of like an archaeological dig unearthing an ancient unknown language. I don’t know anyone who has a specification of GEDCOM prior to version 5.3 (if anyone does, please let me know), so now became a matter of interpreting the text and seeing if I could translate.

As it is, the current version of Behold cannot display the people and individuals in this file correctly. The first problem is that on the 0 INDI record lines, there is no space between the end of the identifier, i.e. @242@, and the tag, i.e. INDI.

This also is a problem on the 0 FAM tags, except in this file they are not FAM tags but FAMI tags with an “I” on the end.

The other interesting difference is the linkages. Look in the above example and you’ll see two lines containing:  1 PARE 2 RFN @89@. This is a link to the parents of the person, and in version since GEDCOM 5.3, this has become a single line: 1 FAMC @89@. 

All the other linkages were different as well. The list is:
- FAMC was PARE + RFN
- FAMS was FAMF + RFN
- CHIL was CHIL + YOUN
- HUSB was HUSB + RFN
- WIFE was WIFE + RFN
and I’m still working on the extra one they had which now has no equivalent:
- SIBL + OLD
which seems to be a linkage to a sibling which should be redundant information, but I’ll check that.

The dates are also in yyyymmdd format which has been changed in newer GEDCOMs to dd MMM yyyy. In a way, the old version was better, because it is the basic ISO standard for date representation. Within a GEDCOM file, it doesn’t matter how a date is stored. The GEDCOM file is not meant to be viewed by the genealogist. It is your genealogy software that simply must load the information and display it understandably for you. And using English month names for the 3-letter abbreviation does more harm than good. So I’m not sure why later versions made this change.

So I have now changed my development version of Behold so that these situations will be handled (and this will be included in the next release of Behold in case anyone else happens to have some ancient GEDCOMs lying around.) Once I did that, Behold was able to properly present the information in the file.

Do you have any of these ancient GEDCOMs lying around in this format? The sure way to tell is if the file ends with a line containing: 0 EOF. Newer GEDCOM versions end with 0 TRLR.  I wouldn’t mind having a few more for testing, so if you have an oldie, please contact me.


Followup: Aug 21, 2014

This file has now been confirmed to be a GEDCOM 2.0 file.

Discussion the next day with Tamura Jones led to the conclusion that there is an older file available, GEDCOM 1.0, and the program Family History System by Phillip Brown seems to be the only program built to export to (and import from) that earliest format. Even PAF only started with GEDCOM 2.0.

See the GEDCOM 1.0 article by Tamura Jones for interesting information on this.

Genealogy Technology – Random Thoughts - Wed, 13 Aug 2014

Lots going on in the technical genealogy world, and so much incorrect thinking in my opinion.

The major online services are quietly going about their business: Ancestry, FamilySearch and MyHeritage (which now includes Geni) are the big three, but there are scores of others such as GeneaNet and WikiTree. They’ve had years to do so, but no one service has shown dominance. It may still be years before this all gets sorted out.

Single World Tree or Individual Trees? Now that is the question, and everyone has an opinion and argues, but both ways have their faults. The two will have to coexist for a while because no consensus is in sight.

It is being said that handheld pads and mobile devices are the future. Therefore everything will be in the cloud and accessed with apps from these devices. And desktop genealogy software will not be needed. Well that’s all bullfeathers. More than anything, people want control of their data. They’ll want their own database in their own possession and not on some alien planet somewhere. And if it is on some alien planet, they want control of it, and don’t want the aliens to have the ability to destroy it.

Family Tree Maker is a good program!? Ouch. Have you seen its reviews lately on GenSoftReviews? I don’t understand how Ancestry has dropped the ball so badly with it. The rewrite in 2008 was necessary because the earlier technology needed upgrading. But how did they take a reasonably good program and destroy it so badly? How, after six years of upgrades, can their software still crash and cause so many problems? Why can’t they get it to sync data properly with their own online database? Why don’t they fix it?

Customer service will win the day. People don’t mind encountering problems or learning a different system if they are dealing with a company that will do everything to help them. In contrast to Family Tree Maker, check out the GenSoftReviews of Family Tree Builder and MyHeritage and note how many of the comments talk about their great support.

The Master Genealogist says farewell. I’ve met Bob Velke and he’s a really smart guy and a fine person. He was one of the early innovators of genealogy software and developed one of the most capable genealogy programs of the day. Everyone else had to catch up to him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make the leap that was necessary and switch TMG’s deprecated FoxPro database to a modern database that could continue.

Legacy 8 still uses FoxPro the Microsoft Jet Engine which is also deprecated. It doesn’t support Unicode 64-bit. The limitations are starting to mount, despite the new releases. Why have few noticed this? Why are they not demanding Legacy to address this? Will the Legacy folk switch in time before they hit the same brick wall that Bob did?

Genealogy Proof. Citation Templates. Evidence Tracking. Everyone’s so concerned about all these. But I’m not ready to spend 4 hours documenting each event I add to my database. What’s wrong with just recording exactly where we got the data from and our reasoning? That should take 30 seconds. We can then spend the other 3:59:30 more usefully.

Data doesn’t transfer. It’s GEDCOM’s fault. We need a new standard. => Ugh! Give me a break! Developers are the one’s that make GEDCOM fail. They fail to adhere to the standard whenever they feel like it and add their own extensions. They then ignore other program’s extensions. GEDCOM has most of what’s needed. With a few (what I call) tweaks, it can be updated and serve the genealogy community for another 25 years.

The whole push to replace GEDCOM with a new standard, that I was happily contributing to in BetterGEDCOM, which evolved into FHISO that was doing great and … Thud! After Drew Smith was appointed chair of FHISO there was nothing. That was over a year ago. I questioned Drew about this at RootsTech in February, and he told me FHISO was still looking for a coordinator. All the founding members would support FHISO if it could get going, and it’s quite a group: Ancestry, RootsMagic, WikiTree, OurFamily*ology, Calico Pie, Coret Genealogie, the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS), BrightSolid and Mocavo. But it looks like FHISO is stalled and dead in the water unless someone steps forward with the energy and initiative to reboot it.

Oh where oh where did AncestorSync go? They had the right idea. Sync data directly between many desktop programs and online family trees. That’s exactly what every genealogist really wants and even needs. But doing it did not turn out to be as simple as they thought. Someone should … hmmmm.

Thanks for letting me rant. I feel better now.


August 15 update re Legacy:

I received an email from Geoff Rasmussen from Millennia (Legacy Family Tree) who informed me that Legacy does not use FoxPro but is built on top of a Microsoft Access database. Indeed I was wrong, and inspecting a Legacy .FDB file, one can see it is using the Microsoft Jet Database Engine.

However, this unfortunately does not change Millennia’s situation with Legacy. The Microsoft Jet Database Engine, like FoxPro, has also been deprecated by Microsoft. The Jet driver will not be updated and there is no 64-bit version of the driver available, nor will there ever be. So Millennia will need to switch before they hit the brick wall.

In July 2011, Microsoft acknowledged an issue that “severely affects query performance” with Access and Jet since the introduction of Windows 7 due to the nature of resource management being vastly different in newer operating systems. “Microsoft issued hotfixes for Microsoft Access, but will not fix the issue with Jet 4.0 as it is out of mainstream support.” (from Microsoft Access on Wikipedia) – So already, Legacy is starting to feel the effects of staying with Jet.

This, unfortunately, is the nature of programming. Choosing a technology is sometimes a crapshoot, and you may be lucky, or you may not. But you’ve got to see the writing on the wall when it’s there and change before it’s too late.


August 16 update re FHISO:

Interestingly, as I wrote this blog post, FHISO had completed a year of getting organized and announced that they are now ready to begin technical work. This is good.

See Richard Smith’s comment below.

Off To Gaenovium - Thu, 24 Jul 2014

The official announcement is out. And I now can announce that I’ll be flying to the city of Leiden, Netherlands in early October.

Gaenovium will be a small one day conference on October 7 for genealogy technology creators, so it will give me a wonderful opportunity to meet, share, discuss and argue with other developers. I love these opportunities to expand and consider what others are doing and use them to make improvements to what I am doing and even possibly to change my future plans for the better.

I’m slated to be one of the five speakers and I’ll be putting together a talk called “Reading Wrong GEDCOM Right” with many examples of the multitude of non-standard GEDCOM variations that I’ve had to handle in Behold. This will be a technical talk for developers, and I’m looking very forward to presenting this to a distinct group of people that will be able to appreciate it. 

The conference is being organized by Tamura Jones of Leiden, Netherlands and Bob Coret of The Hague, Netherlands.

Tamura has done much to improve the quality of genealogy software as he provides likely the most brutally honest assessments of programs he reviews, and smart developers will heed what he says. His previous assessments of Behold: Behold release disappoints (0.98.9.90), Behold 0.99.2 Beta, and Behold 1.0 all provided me with great feedback and areas where it needed to improve.

Bob is the creator of the genealogieonline website which is just one of many initiatives he has taken over the years to innovate and improve the technology used for Dutch genealogical research.

Tamura and Bob have both worked very hard to organize this first ever Gaenovium conference and I’m looking forward to meeting them both.

Another person that I’ve corresponded with who is also speaking at the conference is Tony Proctor of Ireland. Tony was very involved with Better GEDCOM and FHISO and I had several conversations with him through those venues. I’ve not looked too closely yet at his STEMMA data model, designed to be a possible replacement for GEDCOM and more, so I’m interested in hearing what he has to say.

The last item on the Gaenovium schedule is a Panel Discussion on Current and Future Genealogical Exchange Standards, so this could be the most interesting session of them all.

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*Pavilion photo by Tamura Jones, copyright © 2014, used by kind permission.

The event will take place in a building called The Pavilion, and looks like a lovely venue. The capacity is only about 50, so if you are at all interested in coming, be sure to register as soon as possible or you may be disappointed.