Review of Compendium

Compendium has been under development at the Open University for many years.  Compendium does much more than just Mind Mapping.  It is a free and open source tool for representing, organising and communicating knowledge, processes and arguments.  It may not be as pretty as some of the other mind mapping tools but it is much more capable and functional.

There is one feature which was tried and found not to be useful but was not entirely removed.  In one of the earlier versions there was an e-mail system built in to the program so that different users of the database could send each other messages, but this e-mail system did not connect to the outside world it was purely internal.  It was found that most of the users of the program used external e-mail applications to send each other messages and so this function was removed but on your home map there is still an Inbox which you cannot delete or use to send messages.  It acts like a node and you can link to it.  You can open it but it will be an empty list.  I don’t know why it is still there.

Another thing which appears on your home map is a recycling bin which is where deleted nodes go to die or be resurrected.

Compendium stores its maps in a database so there is no ‘save’ button, whatever changes you make to a map are saved continuously.  By default Compendium uses the Derby database embedded within Java (Compendium is written in Java and you can download the source code) but it can also use a MySQL database.  For home use the database will most likely be set up on your local machine and you will be the only one to have access to it, but it is possible to set the database up on a remote machine and to have many people working on the same database at the same time.  Collaborative editing of a map is possible.

The version I am using is Compendium NG but there is another version, Compendium LD is a fork of an older slightly less advanced version aimed specifically at students and which has been given a more extensive set of node stencils (templates).  Fortunately it is a simple job to install Compendium LD, copy the extra stencils then uninstall it and paste the stencils into appropriate place in Compendium NG.  So then you have the best of both.

VUE is easier to use and has more extensive documentation.


Overall score = 23 out of 50


1.  Organisation  =  6

Compendium places few constraints on how you organise material.  A Compendium database starts off with one ‘Home’ map on which you can place nodes and connections between nodes (links).  Maps can be as big as you like, the canvas is enormous.  One type of node which is particularly interesting is the Map node.  This type of node contains a new map on a new canvas which can contain map nodes which contain other maps, etc …  Memory is the only limit to the depth to which this can go.  This means it is easy to split up your information into many small easy to understand maps instead of having one gigantic sprawling map.

There is no hierarchy unless you make it yourself, the map can contain floating nodes and there can be as many maps on one canvas as you have room for.  A node may be any one of eleven types selected from a pallet and dragged onto the map, or you can type the keyboard shortcut to create a node at the mouse position, so creating nodes is very quick.  Links are also quick to create, just right click and drag from one node to another.  Links can have a type but they cannot split or join like they can in VUE.

Although there are eleven types of node you can extend this by using what the Compendium team call stencils.  This allows you to roll your own type of node with your own icons.

Compendium also supports transclusion, the same node may appear in different places and when it is edited all the instances of that node are changed.

Nodes can be tagged with keywords which can then be used to search for particular nodes, although using the results of a search is not intuitively obvious.  If you mouse over the ‘views’ column of the search results then a box appears under the mouse with a list of the maps where that particular result appears, clicking on one of these entries will bring up that map.


2.  Attachments to nodes  =  4     (would have been higher but for the bug and not supporting universal links)

In Compendium a node is not just an icon with a title in a map.  You can open it to reveal its contents.  There are five basic types of nodes, one of these is only used by Compendium itself and two of the others aren’t particularly useful so when defining a new node type for a stencil (a palette of your own custom node types) the choice is very simple, the node is either a ‘Map’ which contains a new blank map or it is a ‘Reference’ which contains text but which can also link to things.

The other types are Note, List and Movie Map.  The Note type is used exclusively by Compendium but it is just a Reference type without the link field so a Reference node can be used in its place without any detriment.  The Movie Map type is used for displaying video files but these are probably better displayed by linking to the file and using its default application.  The List type is a list of nodes, but this is not very well implemented and it is difficult to populate the list.

Opening a Map node takes you to the map contained within the map node.  Opening a Reference node opens a window containing the contents of the node which are a title field, a notes field, a Ref field and an image field.

The title is the text which appears below the node on the map.

The notes field contains text, there is a bug in the program which prevents it from holding large amounts of text.  The note field can only hold 32 kilobytes of text, if the text exceeds this length then it will only persist until the program is closed.  When you next run Compendium the text will have disappeared, there will be no error messages or warnings, it just isn’t there when you next run the program.  This is quite a serious bug in my opinion, not the fact that there is a limit on the size of the text but the fact that there is no warning when you reach that limit, your text just isn’t there when you next run the program.

So the note field is for short texts only, but 32 kilobytes is more than enough for most purposes on a program like this.  The text is unformatted, just plain text in the default windows dialog box font and size.  The text can be divided into pages but where you put the page breaks is entirely up to you.

The reference field can contain a link to a file or a URL but unfortunately Compendium does not support universal links.  The Image field contains the pathname and file name of the image to be used for the node, if it is blank then the default image from the stencil is used.

There is no way to create a link into Compendium from another program.  Since the maps are all in a database you cannot even use the trick of running the program with a particular file because there are no map files which can be run.


3.  Appearance  =  5

Compendium has the appearance of a Unix program, there is some customisation, the interface may be set to some of the styles supported by Java Swing.

The positioning of nodes on the map is set by the user but links between nodes take the shortest path.  In my opinion the maps are not as expressive as the VUE maps although they do come close.



4.  Ease of use  =  4

Compendium has a very idiosyncratic user interface, it takes a while to get used to it.  It follows very few of the conventions which windows users have grown used to.  There are many things which can be done but which are not obvious or intuitive.  There is no good documentation for Compendium.

You can zoom in and out from the map using the mouse wheel and pan by right click and drag in a clear part of the map.  Zooming out gives you an overview of the map.

Compendium can only have one database open at any time and there can only be one instance of Compendium running at a time so this is less useful than it could be.

There is support for collaborative working but I have not investigated this aspect of the program.


5.  Import – Export  =  4

Compendium does not have a comprehensive list of import and export formats, it can export to XML or to a Web page or to a .JPEG file.  It can import an XML file or from a ‘Questmap’ file (whatever one of those is), or there is an option to ‘Import Image Folder into current map’ which copies all the pictures in a folder and pastes them into the current map (which is actually less useful than it sounds).

So maps may be exchanged from one instance of Compendium to another by exporting the map in XML format and importing it into the other Compendium in XML format.  XML format is also useful to see the structure of a map but beyond that I have not been able to import the generated XML file into any other application.



Quite a while ago I saw a program on Channel 4 about a guy who supported the BNP (British National Party).  I found some of his views on race to be quite distasteful but also they were based on false assumptions.

I was reminded of this program in the past few days.  I was in a KFC at lunchtime waiting in a queue to be served when my attention was drawn to a group of four men sat at one of the tables who were talking very loudly.  It became obvious that they shared many of the views of the man in the Channel 4 documentary.

The man in the documentary said that true British blood should not be tainted by being mixed with the blood of other races, he likened it to a glass of water which is pure and clear, he said that once you mix in just a single drop of black ink then all the water in the glass is now tainted and can never be pure again however much pure water you mix it with and however dilute the ink becomes the taint is still there.  He said that this is the reason that pure British people should only interbreed with other pure British people.

What a load of utter drivel!

For the moment let us take this notion seriously and ask ourselves if there is a true English bloodline and where does it come from?

Perhaps they mean the Gaelic peoples who were the first people of Britain, but they came from France.  The human race started off in the rift valley of Africa and spread out from there.  France got humans before Britain but during one of the ice ages the sea level lowered enough so that there was a land bridge between France and Britain.  The first people in Britain walked here from France.

Later on our shores were visited by Vikings from Scandinavia.  They didn’t just rape and pillage some of them settled down here.  So there is a strong Viking heritage mixed with the Gaelic especially in Scotland and the north east of England.

Then came the Romans.  They ruled Britain for hundreds of years.  The Roman empire was a melting pot of ethnicities.  A Roman legionnaire could come from almost anywhere in Europe, the middle east or North Africa.  A lot of the Romans settled here and stayed and their genetic heritage was mixed with the local genes.

By about 400 A.D. the Roman empire was in decline and the outpost in Britain had lost contact with Rome, the legions had been withdrawn and replaced with a local malitia.  Around this time there were a series of invasions from Germany.  By about 500 A.D. Roman rule in Britain had collapsed.

The term Anglo-Saxon which a lot of people regard as being the epitome of Britishness actually comes from these invaders.  The Angles from Angeln in Germany and the Saxons from Saxony in Germany, there were also the Jutes from Jutland in Denmark.  The word England actually derives from Aengla land (land of the Angles) and a lot of the symbols and words used to define Britishness come from this time and actually originate from Germany.

Or perhaps they are talking about our blue blooded English heritage which comes from the Norman conquest, from Normandy in France.  The Normans were not originally from France but were Vikings who had conquered the place they renamed Normandy and settled there hundreds of years earlier.  Their name gradually changed from Norsemen to Normans.

Although the two gene pools are well and truly mixed there is still the notion that the true blue blooded British aristocracy originates from the Norman heritage whilst the ordinary common persons heritage is Anglo-Saxon.

So the true British bloodline if it exists at all is either French or German depending on whether you are upper or lower class, or perhaps it is Gaelic (French) or Viking (Scandinavian) or a mix of all of these with a lot of other stuff in there as well.

Actually there is no true British bloodline, we are all foreigners and we are all mixed.

Racism is a stupid concept, the idea that one race is inherently superior to another is basically flawed.  There is only one race on the earth, the Human race.

Review of VUE

VUE stands for Visual Understanding Environment.  This program comes from Tufts University in the USA.  It was written to allow students to take notes during lectures and to make presentations.

The program stores its maps in disk files which have to be saved manually.

I have not used VUE as a presentation tool and so maybe I have a biased opinion.  To do a presentation with VUE you first have to define a ‘path’, this is a series of slides.  When making the presentation the view of the map will be stepped through this series of slides in ‘full screen presentation mode’.  This facility is not very intuitive in my opinion.

VUE is a very extensive tool with a lot of facilities which are only briefly covered in this review, fortunately you can try it for free, if you don’t like it you haven’t lost anything.  The only niggle I have is that you have to enter your e-mail address into the website in order to download the program, what they do with this data I have no idea, they have not sent me any spam e-mails.


Overall score = 26 out of 50


1.  Organisation  =  6

The user places nodes on the map in the position they want and makes the connections they want.  The positioning is completely manual, however the program can re-position the nodes if you ask it to.  There is no enforced hierarchy and floating nodes are allowed.  The nodes may be arranged into more than one map on the same sheet if the user lays it out that way.

You could produce organisation charts, family trees and process flow diagrams with VUE as the layout is entirely up to the user but there are no tools aimed specifically at these types of diagrams.

The links can have a type if you set one, this is a label on the link to explain the relationship which the link represents, or anything else you want to put in there.  The links can branch or combine, this is like the ‘type’ of a link acting as a node to which links can connect.  Links act like nodes in many respects, for example you can assign them keywords and categories, they can have a URL, a file or an image associated with them, the difference from an image in a node being that an image file is not displayed on the map but if you click on it then the file will be opened with its default application.

Keywords can be assigned to nodes, you can also assign ‘categories’.  The keywords and categories can be searched, when you do a search the results appear as an outline.  There is a pre defined set of categories but you can add your own if you wish, there are no pre defined keywords.  You can assign categories using an on-line ontological tool called OpenCalais.  I have not had any success using this tool, when I have analysed any of my maps with this tool it just came back with an error message saying “This node does not contain enough meaningful information to be analysed”.

As well as looking at the content of your map as a map you may also view it as an outline.  Maps and diagrams can also be put on different layers which can be switched on and off, this is quite useful to view different aspects of the map at different times.

The main purpose of any mapping tool is to express ideas graphically and VUE does this very well.


2.  Attachments to nodes  =  5

The nodes can contain text ‘notes’, the notes can be very big, I placed 1.5 Mb of text in one note, this caused delays in selecting that node and in displaying the note.  This is an extreme test and you should not need to have that much text attached to a node for any practical purpose which I can think of, but it is possible.

The program supports universal links from VUE to another program which means that any node can be linked to a URL or a file on disk or a link to another program.  You can link a node to a piece of text in a word processor file or a document in a note taking program and if you want to attach large amounts of text to a node this is probably a better way to do it.

A node can only have one attachment, if it links to a file it cannot also link to a web URL or have a universal link into another program.  It can only link to one of these things at once.  You can link an image to a node, in which case it is displayed on the map but this also uses up the one attachment which each node has.  But nodes can contain other nodes and each of these nodes may be linked to a file, a URL, an image or may contain a universal link.  This gets around the limitation of one resource per node.

Nodes contained within another node do not form a map within that node but group together like an outline similar to TreeSheets, so you can build an outline within a node simply by dragging other nodes into it.  The writing in the nodes can get very small but VUE has has an interactive zoom tool, when this is selected clicking on a node will expand that node to fill the screen, a right click will return the screen to the normal view.

Although VUE supports universal links to other programs it does not support universal links into VUE from other programs, there is no way to generate a link which will open VUE in a particular file or in a particular position in a file.  The nearest you can come to this is to link to a .vue file from the other program, so VUE will open the file and display it, but this method has some drawbacks.

If you have many programs open at once and you happen to end up back in the note taking program and follow the link back to the .vue file then you will have two separate instances of VUE open using the same file, indeed VUE will open a new instance of itself each time the link is clicked so it is possible to end up with many instances of VUE open with the same file.  If you make any changes to the file in different instances then it is the last one to get saved which will be remembered.

This is not good but there is a way around this with another program called AutoHotKey or AHK.  AutoHotKey is a free batch processing language with the capability to intercept key presses so that you can set up keyboard macros.  However an AHK file is just a batch file, if you don’t set it to look for a key press an AHK script will just run once and exit.  It is a simple task to get an AHK batch file which takes the name and path of a .vue file as a parameter, it then looks to see if this file is already open, if the file is open AHK switches to that instance of VUE and exits, if the file is not open then it opens the file in VUE and then exits.


3.  Appearance  =  5

Maps created with VUE tend to have a plain appearance but this can be an advantage as there is little to distract the viewer from the message contained within the map.  The user interface is uncluttered and extra information is displayed in separate floating windows which may be moved to a second screen if you have one.

Nodes can be coloured and the boxes come in a small but useful selection of shapes.  The links between nodes can be straight or curved (single curve or S curve), with curved links there are handles on the link which can be pulled about to change its shape.

All positioning is manual unless you specifically tell the program to re-arrange your map, if you do tell it to re-arrange your map then you can still pull things about after it has been re-arranged to set it up the way you want it to appear.


4.  Ease of use  = 5

The user interface is somewhat idiosyncratic and has to be learnt.  There are keyboard shortcuts for just about everything but these are not programmable.  The visual aspects of the user interface cannot be changed in any way.

There are various floating windows which contain other information which you may want to have handy, the metadata for the selected node and the formatting window are examples of this.  They may be placed on another screen if you have one but if not they need to be placed on the screen you are working on and they are always on top and so at best they will take screen real estate away from your map, at worst they will get in the way.

Overall this is not a bad program to use and especially if you use it regularly you will get to know and come to accept its idiosyncrasies.


5.  Import – Export  =  5   (would have been higher if the Import facilities had been better)

VUE can export to a .html file.  When such a file is viewed in a web browser you see a static version of your map which cannot be edited but clicking on a file link or URL will open or launch the file or web page.  Files in such web pages are linked to their location on the local PC, so this is not portable, to get around this VUE can pack the map and all of its attachments in a .vpk file which is a compressed zip file containing the map and any files referred to by the map.

VUE can also export the map as an image in .png, .jpg and .svg formats.  There are also some other export options which I have not explored, like XML and RDF.

There are some methods for importing data and maps into VUE but these seem complicated and not as well finished as the rest of the program.