A different approach to Note Taking

I take a lot of notes. I use them for reference. I use them for speculation about topics of interest. I use them to note down ideas so that I don’t loose them.

Before the digital age I had many paper notebooks and boxes full of index cards.

In those days I used to carry a HP 200-LX computer in my pocket and I thought it was an ideal note taking solution, oh if only I could buy one again, oh the nostalgia …

Whilst I was doing my degree I used to take notes at lectures on paper despite having several digital solutions available. I found that writing on paper helped me recall the material that I was writing much better than if I typed it onto a computer.

The physical act of writing is more visceral, it connects with the consciousness at a more basic level than typing. When typing one can go into autopilot and concentrate on the sequence of letters rather than the meaning of the words, the material gets typed accurately but it leaves little lasting impression in the memory.

But computer solutions are better organised and more compact. If one relies on paper then one accumulates many scraps of paper and old notebooks which are difficult to keep organised or refer to.

What I am looking for it the best of both worlds.  A paper notebook with unlimited pages which can transfer it’s content onto a computer, without many scraps of paper to keep track of, and hopefully without the paper.

Trees generate oxygen for our planet, we should not chop them down to be made into newspapers or chipboard furniture or paper notebooks.

For a long time I have relied on an application called ConnectedText which has served me well for a long time. It is a wiki with many powerful features, but recently I have found it to be less satisfactory than it used to be.

This is because I bought a new laptop and monitor with very high resolution screens.

The advent of high DPI screens and Windows 10 screen scaling has meant that the icons on ConnectedText are now microscopic and the titles of topics are only partially displayed.

The development of ConnectedText has now ceased and so it will probably never be updated and will continue to fall further behind as operating systems change until finally one day some update will break it.

This is particularly annoying for me because some while ago I paid quite a lot of money for perpetual licenses, the developer sold me licenses which would be for life, if there were any new versions of the software I would get an update to my license so I would get the new version for free.

He probably already knew that version 6 would be the last one and I already had a license to version 6.

If the developer has abandoned development it would be better if he were to release the source code as an open source project but I suspect he is keeping it going just to get a little more money from the current version.

I cannot now recommend ConnectedText for anyone wanting a new notetaking solution.

Perhaps it is time for some lateral thinking.

It would be nice if one could have digital paper, a screen on which one could write and draw but which could send these images to a computer and/or recognise the handwriting. Like a paper notebook with unlimited pages, no more stray scraps of paper to keep track of.

There are several possibilities.

One could use an Android tablet.

In my experience handwriting on an Android (a Sony Xperia mobile phone) is awful, the line drops out at random and the screen is slick, there is no friction and this tends to make my handwriting more messy. Also the note taking apps I have tried are cumbersome and awkward to use.

An Android device can also act as an e-reader for PDF and text files.

Despite this Android is not a good solution.

Dr Andus recommends a Boogie board.

I have tried a Boogie board and writing on the screen is much better and it is more responsive than an Android phone. However the Boogie board is not a very good solution for other reasons.

It is a write only solution, this is not what I want.

Once you have written a page or drawn a diagram, once you move onto a new page you can never go back to the previous page. The device stores them but it cannot display them. You can upload the stored pages onto a computer and this is the only way to see one of your previous pages.

The Boogie board is cheap but it is not a solution to the problem.

There is another device by Sharp, the WG-N20 which seems more capable than the Boogie board. It is an electronic notepad. You can look at and edit any stored page, sounds good, but there are problems.

The first big shock you get when buying one is the hidden costs. This is a Japanese import and so the price you see on the Amazon website is not the price you end up paying.

On the Amazon website it boasts free shipping to the UK but the UK Customs and Excise will open your package and impose an import duty on it. The shipping company will then demand this import duty plus an ‘administration charge’ before it will release your parcel for delivery.

The price you end up paying is about one and a half times the advertised price.

The manuals are in Japanese. So is all the text displayed by the machine, on the on screen buttons and in the dialog boxes.

The screen is slick and has little friction but despite that it has a better writing experience than an Android phone or tablet. The screen contrast is not very good, you are writing on a grey screen with slightly darker grey. This tablet needs good lighting to be able to use it adequately and there is no backlight.

The screen is a conventional LCD screen not e-paper. It is not an e-reader, it cannot import or display text files or PDFs.

It is not a good solution.

I have even been into the local Apple store to try out an Apple iPad.

I didn’t get along with it very well, the iPad suffers from a frictionless slick screen and the note taking application seemed to have some fundamental flaws. The iPads are expensive for what you get.

The staff in the Apple store are so full of artificial enthusiasm, everything about their products is wonderful and the fact that the annotations can be in any colour you like more than compensates for the fact that if you insert text the annotations don’t move with the text and are now in the wrong place.

I didn’t agree with the sales person!

I would rather have something in black and white that works properly than something multi coloured that doesn’t.

A random search (a clutching at straws exercise) pointed me at a potentially good solution for note taking which is the reMarkable tablet, but it is not available yet and it is expensive. If the advertising on the website is to be believed then they are trying to produce something which seems to fit almost exactly with what I want.

It is an e-reader, it can display PDF files (and e-pub files but I have no e-pub files), it cannot display plain text files which I think is a bad decision on the part of the designers.

There are an awful lot of legacy text files out there. But to be fair the text files could be printed to PDF files but this will increase their size.

Which brings us to the question of storage. The reMarkable tablet has 8 GB for storing documents and notes and drawings. This may seem like a lot but it’s only 100,000 pages. I can envisage filling that, maybe not very quickly but it is possible that I might be able to fill it up. There is no expansion, no SD card slot and the USB socket seems to be only for charging.

Once the storage is full you will have to either delete something or transfer something to a computer to make room for new items.

It is also big, just a little less than A4 size, 18 cm by 26 cm (7 inches by 10 inches). This is good for reading but definitely not pocket sized. What is needed is a small version which I could put in my pocket, 5 inches by 7 inches would be ideal, I wouldn’t use this as an e-reader just as a notepad.

Although it is not ideal it is far better than any other solution I have yet discovered so I ordered one. At the moment (in June 2017) there is a 33% discount on pre orders but I will have to wait five months, current delivery schedule is October but that keeps going up because demand is greater than their production rate.

If they had a pocket sized version then I would probably be ordering both the big and small versions, especially if they could transfer notes and documents between them.

I will write a review of it when I get it.

 

 

 

 

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The misnomer of ‘Software as a Service’

There is a type of deception which takes place where something is renamed to obscure what it is and to leave behind any negative connotations of it’s original name.

Like the Conservatives slowly privatising the health service but calling it outsourcing so that people don’t realise the health service is being privatised.

Another example of this deception is ‘Software as a Service’ which should really be called ‘Software Rental’, the people who push this idea don’t like the name ‘Software Rental’ because they would like to obscure the fact that you are renting software so they call it something that doesn’t sound as bad.

Let us call it what it actually is, Software Rental!

I can see why software developers like rental software because it provides them with a continuous revenue stream so they are pushing the idea but I have yet to hear any convincing arguments as to why it is good for the customers.  For the customers it is a continuous revenue drain.

The software companies claim that it is better because the customers get continuous updates to the software, but if the software worked properly in the first place it wouldn’t need fixing, and the continuous tweaks to the way things work and to how things look for the sake of novelty are just annoying and unnecessary.

There are two models for ‘Software Rental’ one of them is the model adopted by The Brain Technologies (TheBrain) where if you stop paying the rent then you are left with the version of the software you had when you stopped paying but it still works, but there are no updates.

This is not as bad as the other model adopted by Microsoft (Microsoft Office 365) where if you stop paying the software stops working altogether.  If you have a lot of data and documents produced by these programs then it is as if the company are holding your data hostage against your continuing payments.  This model is very bad.

The problem is that ‘Software as a Service’ may come to be seen as the norm in the software industry, this would be very bad for the users.

I hope this does not happen but I suspect a lot of people in the software industry might use the fact that Microsoft are using this model as justification to use it themselves.

 

Ribbons, screens and links

Why ribbons?

A few of years ago Microsoft started putting ribbons on most of their applications and trying to promote them as a good idea, “this is the future” they said and many people believed them. On a lot of applications the ribbon is optional, you can choose to have the traditional menus and toolbars but on Microsoft applications the ribbon is mandatory whether you like it or not. But on a small screen a ribbon is a really bad idea, it takes up far too much room. If you use the keyboard shortcuts a lot then this is just wasted space.

The reason Microsoft are so enthusiastic about ribbons is that they see the future of computing in small mobile devices with touch screens, like the Microsoft Surface. With a touch screen you prod the screen with your finger. With a finger you have much less precision than if you are using a mouse or even a stylus, so the icons have to be bigger and have to be spaced further apart.

So the ribbon should have been optional on mobile devices with touch screens but instead Microsoft chose to impose it on everyone. It is puzzling why they have caught on as much as they have, I think this is partially due to the novelty value and partly because Microsoft are such a big company with a disproportionately large influence over the computing community that anything they do becomes a standard so they do not have to pay any attention to common sense or ease of use.

How to tame the ribbon on Microsoft Office

You can make the ribbon less obnoxious on Microsoft Office programs. At the top far right of the screen just below the window controls is a blue circle with a white question mark in it. This is next to a white up arrow. If you click on this up arrow the ribbon goes away until you click on one of the menu tabs at the top of the screen, then the ribbon you have selected appears until you have used it and then it goes away again. There is also something called the ‘quick access toolbar’ which isn’t used very much by most people.  It is usually at the very top of the screen but in the options there is a ‘quick access toolbar’ tab with a tick box to put it below the ribbon, from this screen you can also select which commands go on to the quick access toolbar.

I have put many commands on there, if I find that I am having to use the ribbons a lot then I put the commands I need onto the quick access toolbar and so it has grown until now it is almost all the way across the screen and it only takes up a small amount of vertical space. Microsoft are very good at designing user interfaces so I suspect this is deliberate and how the interface is supposed to be used but it is not obvious and a lot of people just don’t use the quick access toolbar at all.

High DPI Screens

I recently had to buy a new laptop because Microsoft destroyed my old laptop. When Microsoft destroyed my old laptop in the upgrade to Windows 10 (an upgrade which I did not instigate or desire) I needed to buy a new laptop. The one I chose has a very high resolution screen, the resolution is 3200 by 1800. I thought that having a high DPI screen would be a good idea, now that I have been using it for a while I think that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea. The picture on the screen of the laptop itself is very clear and incredibly sharp but at a scaling factor of 100% the text is un-readably small, currently I have it set to 200% and this is still a bit small.

The problem is the scaling of text in applications. If the application doesn’t scale the text properly then you get microscopic text or on some programs the text does scale properly but the toolbar icons are microscopic. And some programs have not got the idea that a computer can have two different resolution screens, so windows and dialog boxes are scaled correctly on the screen that they were drawn on but if you drag them to the other screen some programs re-scale the dialog box or window properly, some programs don’t scale the dialog box so it becomes very small, some programs make the window or dialog box disappear whilst other programs just crash.

The problem is the new ‘Windows Presentation Foundation’ which is an API for rendering text and images on a computer screen. Somewhere between Windows 7 and Windows 10 it has been updated to include new features to handle the scaling of text and GUI elements, so programs which use the new features in the API need to be re-written, or at least the GUI needs to be re-written.  The change is not trivial, it isn’t just like compiling to a different library, the changes cannot be done automatically so the code needs to be edited manually to include the new features.

Of course all the Microsoft applications handle this correctly, as you might expect, but other programs sometimes don’t handle it quite as well. This has meant that some of my favourite programs either don’t work properly or are completely unusable on my new laptop.

I tried out a few of the programs I have been using and which I have used in the past using my laptop with it’s high DPI screen and a 1600 by 1200 monitor plugged into the HDMI port of the laptop.

Compendium

Compendium ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

WhizFolders

WhizFolders scales everything correctly and works as expected.

VUE

VUE ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.  This has left me looking for a new mapping program, I relied on VUE quite heavily.

CMAP Tools

Because I can’t use VUE on my laptop anymore I revisited CMAP Tools, a program I tried a while ago, but alas CMAP Tools ignores any scaling factors you have set on your screen and draws its user interface at the native resolution of the screen. The text and icons are microscopic and the program is unusable without a magnifying glass.  On the external monitor things are scaled to the same size but the pixels are bigger so that even with a magnifying glass it is unreadable.

Scrivener

Scrivener draws most of its user interface correctly but the icons in the toolbar are now small and the text in the binder panel looks cramped, it has been drawn at the correct scale but too close together. This can be solved by switching fonts to a font which has a larger line spacing, Calibri worked on my system.  The toolbar icons in Scrivener were too large, having them much smaller is a little tiresome but not as bad as it would have been if the icons had started out at normal size, this problem is trivial.  Scrivener works well on a high DPI screen.

TheBrain

TheBrain scales its user interface correctly but cannot handle having two screens with different scaling factors.  If any of the panels are put into a floating window and dragged to the other screen then the program crashes if the scale factor is different on the two screens.  If the scale factor is the same on both screens then everything works as expected.

MyInfo

MyInfo scales everything correctly and works as expected.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at the correct scale.

Ultra Recall

Ultra Recall scales its user interface correctly and works as expected apart from one problem.  Embedded OLE objects are rendered at a ridiculously large scale.  The developer said that he is using Internet Explorer to render the objects within Ultra Recall and so cannot do anything about the scale factor at which they appear.  However developers of some other programs seem to have been able to do this correctly.

ConnectedText

Unfortunately ConnectedText has some problems with high DPI screens, the icons on the toolbar become microscopic and the titles of topics show only the top half of the text.  Apart from those problems it works correctly.  I still use ConnectedText despite the problems.

Essential PIM Pro

This is a curious one.  I was using Essential PIM Pro 6 which had all sorts of problems with scaling when I was forced onto Windows 10, so I wrote to the developer telling him what the problems were and he wrote back saying that ‘Unfortunately there is no way to overcome this problem’ which I assumed to mean that he wasn’t going to do anything about it and started looking for a new e-mail program but then just a couple of weeks later Essential PIM Pro 7 came out which solved almost all the problems.  He could have told me that the new version was coming out and to wait a little while but for some reason he didn’t.  There is still a problem with some of the text in some of the panels and dialog boxes looking too cramped, this could be solved by switching fonts but you cannot change the interface font in Essential PIM Pro like you can in Scrivener.


So, which laptop should I have bought?  Well I think there is an optimum screen resolution for each screen size, you want it high enough that the individual pixels are not visible but not so high as to cause the scaling issues detailed above, and for the external screen you want it to have enough pixels so that you can set the scaling factors to be the same for the two screens.  So the external monitor should be high resolution. But I am stuck with the monitor that I have (1600 by 1200) unless I want to purchase another one.

For a screen which is 13 inches between diagonally opposite corners I think the optimum resolution would be 1920 by 1080.  If the screen were bigger then the resolution could be higher to keep the DPI (dots per inch) the same.

Universal Links

I sometimes get e-mails about the blog and sometimes people put comments on my posts.  One thing that has been asked more than once is :-

“What is a universal link anyway?”

A universal link is a link to specific content within the file of an application.  For instance Essential PIM Pro allows you to copy a link which will point to a specific e-mail in a specific database created in Essential PIM Pro.  This can be activated from another application and will not only start up Essential PIM but open the specific e-mail to which the link points.

There is a protocol which the application needs to register with the operating system when it is installed, once registered if the operating system receives a link of the correct format it will pass the link to the specified application.

As an example of what they look like a link to one of the e-mails in Essential PIM looks like :-

epim://D:\Data\EPIM\Pauls.epim/mails/544385275277860595

the bit up to the :// is the string which is registered with the operating system, the rest is application specific.

As another example a link to a topic in my ConnectedText notes looks like :-

ct://Potek/HD%20Clone%20Notes

again the bit before the :// specifies the application to which the link points but the rest of it is almost human readable once you realise that ‘%20’ is the space character.

So a universal link is like a URL but it points to specific content within a specific application on the local machine.

A Review of TheBrain

It is my opinion that in a mapping program moving the map to keep the node of interest in the centre of the screen is a very useful feature which should be more widely available than it is.

A long time ago I used a free mapping program called Cayra, it was unlike any of the mind mapping program which I had used before.  It was not organised into a hierarchical tree, anything could be connected to anything else and the map moved to position the selected node into the centre of the screen.  One of the results of this type of organisation was that your map could be any size and only the things which were one or two connections away from the node you had selected would be shown.

Sadly Cayra is no longer viable, it was not being maintained by its author and the original download site lapsed. The author didn’t release the source code and abandoned the development. Then an update to Microsoft .NET 3.5 broke something in Cayra and it started crashing every few seconds.  It is a pity, it was a good program.  Today I don’t think there is anywhere you can still download Cayra.

TheBrain Technologies have brought out a mapping program which exceeds the capabilities of Cayra in every way, but it is not free.  There is very little to dislike about the program itself, but there is a lot to dislike about the jingoistic documentation, marketing and support, also there is a lot to dislike about the licensing.

There is a free trial version which works like the Pro version for 30 days, then it reverts to the free version.  The free version has a lot of useful features disabled but annoyingly the icons and menu entries for these features are all still there, if you click on one then a dialog box opens telling you that you need to buy a licence in order to use this feature.  Very annoying, if the feature is not available the icon or menu entry should be either greyed out or absent.

The Pro version is $219 for which you get four activations (more on that later) each activation is locked to the computer upon which it was activated.

Finally there is the subscription version which is $299 for the first year and $159 for each year after that which works out at $25 per month for the first year and $13.25 per month for subsequent years.  Again you get four activations.

So, what extras do you get with a subscription?

You can store your maps online in the company servers or on the web where you will have access to them from a web browser.  You can allow others to have access to your maps, either read only or read/write, and so the maps can be used by groups of people to share ideas, communicate and collaborate.

You can also synchronise maps from different computers to the ones in the company servers.  So you can work on the same map at home or at work on different computers and keep them in sync.  Also the maps can be transferred and synchronised to Apple Mac computers and phones, both Android and Apple iPhones.

This would be useful for the stand alone program to be able to do.  If I have the same map on my desktop machine and my laptop both of which have access to disk drives on my local area network then it would be very useful to be able to synchronise the map to another map which is on a disk drive which is local to the machine.  TheBrain Technologies have already developed the code to do this, that is what they do when syncing to the cloud, syncing to a local drive would be less complicated.  But they are probably never going to do this because they want to encourage people to take up a subscription to provide the company with a continuing revenue stream.

To activate the program you need an account.

The company seems to assume everyone is going to get the subscription version, the documentation assumes a subscription and they have deliberately made it more awkward to use if you want to use it as a stand alone desktop program.

Then there is the licensing, for your $219 you get to activate the program four times. This may at first seem like an adequate number but it is not.  When I first got the program I activated it on my laptop and on my desktop machine (1 & 2) but when I updated my desktop machine to Windows 10 the program required re-activating (3) and when Windows 10 destroyed my laptop I had to get a new laptop and this was a different machine so required another activation (4).  It may be that the desktop upgrade to Windows 10 might not have used up an activation but I have no way to find out until I have the need to activate it again and it says ‘no, you’ve had your four’.

There are only two other software companies I know of which lock licenses to individual machines like this and one of those is Microsoft, and Microsoft do allow the transfer of a license if you ring them up and explain that the previous installation has been uninstalled.

So what about the program itself.

As well as being a mapping program notes can be stored in the nodes and they can be categorised.  As an organisational tool TheBrain is nearly as powerful as ConnectedText but much more graphical, which is good for people like me who think in pictures, diagrams and patterns rather than in words.

There is a fundamental difference between TheBrain and ConnectedText other than the graphics, that difference is the concept of ‘place’.  When you add data to ConnectedText it is not necessary to decide where to put it, in effect the data finds it’s own place in the matrix based upon the links you give it and the categories you assign to it and the properties and attributes it is given, these things define the place of the data within the matrix.  When you add data to TheBrain then you must decide where to put it within the matrix.  The node is dragged out from another node and that is it’s place.  The user can then connect it to other nodes within the matrix but it’s place was the very first thing which the user decided on before creating the node.

This difference may seem trivial but has some big implications, when building a wiki in ConnectedText you can sometimes stumble upon new insights into the data and be surprised at the patterns which became apparent which were not apparent in the original input. ConnectedText is a tool of discovery as well as organisation and recording.  When building a plex (map) in TheBrain you are unlikely to come upon any new insights simply because the placement of the nodes is entirely based on your pre conceived notions of where things should be placed and this is unlikely to reveal anything which you didn’t already know.  TheBrain is a tool of organisation and recording of data.

Ignoring the licensing, the only other thing I dislike about the program itself is the terminology.  Maps are called ‘plexes’ or ‘Brains’ and Nodes are called ‘Thoughts’.  This cringeworthy terminology is used throughout all the documentation and video tutorials.  The video tutorials exude a feigned gushing enthusiasm about the program which makes me feel like I’m being sold a used car.

I think this hype is an attempt to create the impression that this program is something special and not just another mapping program.  Undoubtedly the program is extremely good and has many technical merits but that doesn’t mean that it is something new and completely different from other mapping programs.

 

 Overall Score = 40 out of 50

  1. Organisation  = 9

Like Cayra TheBrain always keeps the selected node in the centre of the screen.  There is no hierarchy, anything can be connected to anything else.  The fact that the selected node is always kept in the centre of the screen means that the map can be very large without getting cumbersome because only the things which are relevant to the selected node are displayed.  There is a ‘Home’ node which you nominate but this is the only hint of a hierarchy.

In the normal display mode the map arranges itself and you have no control over where nodes are placed, in the normal mode you only see the nodes connected to the node of interest but this can be expanded to include the nodes connected to those nodes, this view can start to look cluttered.

There is also a mode where nodes can be arbitrarily arranged manually on the screen and the connections to other nodes can be expanded or collapsed.  This mode is just like most other mapping programs.

There is even an outline view.

Icons from the library supplied with the program may be assigned to each node, a screen capture of part of the screen may also be assigned to a node as an icon, if you have any icons or images of your own on disk you have to copy them to the clipboard before you can paste the image onto the node as an icon, this works for .png image files but does not work for icon (.ico) files.

New nodes are placed by dragging out from one of the anchor points on an existing node.  When you start to type the name of a new node the program pops up a list of existing nodes which match what you have typed, clicking on one of these entries will auto complete what you were typing and link to the existing node.  A node may appear in many places on the map.  You can generate several nodes at once by separating the names with semi colons but the auto complete doesn’t work if you go on typing and put a semi colon at the end of the name so you end up generating different nodes with duplicate names, probably not what you wanted.

Nodes may be ‘Tagged’, a tag is a keyword or descriptive term applied to the node which has been tagged.  The tags can be searched for and used as a selection criteria in a report.  By default tags appear on the map as text appended to the node but they can be hidden if the user wants.

You can also define ‘Types’ of node.  A type can change the appearance of a node, assign default tags to a node and assign it an icon.  All the characteristics defined for a type become the defaults for that type of node but they can be overridden if any of the characteristics are later changed manually.

As far as finding information goes the search facilities are good.  You can also generate reports which allows you to specify date ranges, tags, types and type of attachment, any node which meets the criteria will be included in the report.  Moreover the reports can be sorted in several different ways.  This is useful, but the similar facilities in Ultra Recall, MyInfo and ConnectedText are much more sophisticated.

An unusual feature for a mapping program is the inclusion of a calendar, nodes can be assigned to a date and a reminder set if needed, when that date arrives a reminder is shown.  Events can be set to repeat.  This feature is more reminiscent of a normal note taking program than a mapping program but it is a welcome change.

The repeating event dialog needs improvement though, the developers need to take a look at the repeating event dialog in ‘Thunderbird‘ for inspiration. With the repeating event dialog in TheBrain I would not be able to set a reminder for two days after the last Thursday of the month for instance (two days after the last Thursday of the month is the weekend after my salary gets paid into my bank if you want to know the significance).

However even having a calendar is a huge leap ahead of any other mapping program I know of, this probably reflects the purpose of TheBrain as an organisational tool rather than just another mapping program.

 

  1. Attachments to nodes  = 9

A node may contain many attachments.

Firstly notes.  Each node has a notes field which contains text, in this case it is formatted rich text which can contain tables, checkboxes, all the usual formatting you would expect in a word processor and hypertext links.  I tried out the limits of the field by inserting one of the Project Guttenberg texts which was about 450 kilobytes long.  It did slow the program down significantly but it still worked and it was still there after closing and re-opening the program.  The notes field will hold all the text anyone might reasonably expect it to hold.  There is no obvious way of inserting images into the text, but they can be attached to a node as a normal file attachment.

Files may also be attached to a node, many files.  There may be some limit to the number of files you can attach but I only tested it up to sixteen.  The files may be attached as a link to a file on the local file system or may be attached as a file embedded within the map.

Also you can attach a folder to a node.  The attached folder opens in Windows Explorer.

There is another method of attaching a folder which creates a ‘virtual folder’ within the map.  The files and folders are not moved into the map, a virtual folder is a link to the external folder.  All the files and folders within the attached folder are represented as subordinate nodes and so the tree structure of files and folders on the disk is reproduced as a hierarchical tree within the map.  This has the advantage that you can attach notes and links to files and folders in that tree.  This gives you an alternative view of your file system.

Links may be inserted into the text of the notes field or a link may be attached to a node.  Links may point to a website, a file, an e-mail address, a node either in the map you have open or in another map or it may be a universal link which points to content opened by another program.  Universal links may either be pasted into the node as an attachment or pasted into the text of the notes field.  TheBrain can also generate universal links, by right clicking on a node and selecting ‘Copy Local Thought URL’ a universal link is copied to the clipboard which points to the node which is currently selected.

This is very useful, TheBrain fully supports universal links in both directions and everything works as expected.

 

  1. Appearance  = 8
The Brain

A screen shot of TheBrain in action.

This is the appearance as I have it set up, the wooden wallpaper is one of my desktop wallpapers. The appearance is very configurable. You can change almost anything so don’t be put off by the dark appearance of my particular setup.

The program has a somewhat idiosyncratic but attractive appearance.  There is a lot of customisation including setting an image as the background to the map.  The colours of most elements displayed on the screen can be set and the customisation is on a per map basis, different maps can be set to display different colours and background.

The positioning of nodes is automatic in the normal mode and is well behaved.  The map can convey its information clearly.

The map has a somewhat organic look.  The links between nodes can be labelled with any relevant information if required.

 

  1. Ease of use = 8

The program is simple and easy to use.  It is certainly a lot easier to use than ConnectedText. Most thing are easy to figure out or become obvious after a bit of experimentation.

There are some points which are not clear to a new user but there is a lot of help available.  There is a .PDF manual free to download from The Brain Technologies website and copious video tutorials are available to view if you can stomach the meretricious gushing enthusiasm about the program where every problem is trivial and every feature is wonderful, but having said that the videos are helpful and informative.

There is also a forum on which questions may be asked and the users of the forum are generally helpful.  However the forum is monitored and any posts which criticise the program in any way are removed immediately, even posts which ask questions about bugs which they have decided not to fix will be removed. I posted about a bug I found, they sent me an e-mail saying it would be fixed in the next version but they weren’t going to do anything about it in this version. My post was removed from the forum.  Anyone posting such things must be careful what they say because they can get their forum access removed.

Collaborative working on maps is possible if you have a subscription to the companies continuous revenue stream scheme.

 

  1. Import – Export  = 6

There are quite a lot of options for getting information into and out of TheBrain. It can import a folder (as a child of the selected node).  It can import the Internet Explorer Favourites list, but why not Firefox or Google Chrome favourites?

It can import and export a special Brain XML format.

It can import a MS Word outline, a Mind Manager file, an OPML file, a FreeMind mind map, an OWL ontology and a text outline (using indentation to set the levels).

TheBrain can export to a bitmap image.

It can export a map to HTML, either SiteBrain HTML or Simple HTML, I have yet to try this out so I can’t comment on the difference but SiteBrain is supposed to reproduce much of the functionality of the map as it appears in the main program but on a website (either on the web or as a local site on your LAN). Whereas Simple HTML reproduces your map as an outline with much less functionality.

The XML export formats are Brain XML which can be imported into TheBrain on another machine or Brain EKP XML which can be imported into TeamBrain which is a multi user collaborative mapping program.

There is also an option to synchronise the calendar with a Google Calendar.

 

Conclusion

Nice program, shame about the licensing.

There is a lot to like about this program, technically it is brilliant but the company have made the decision to milk their customers as much as possible and I don’t feel safe and secure buying a program from a company like that.  Nonetheless I did buy the program and it is extremely good but because of Microsoft’s dirty tricks two out of the four activations have been used up, the other two have been used up legitimately.

Overall I like this program a lot, it is just a shame it has so much baggage.

 

Windows 10 ate my Laptop

A while ago Microsoft announced the upgrade to Windows 10, at that time I had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, as far as I was concerned Windows 7 worked very well and Windows 8 was an unmitigated disaster. When I found out more about Windows 10 my impression was that technically very good but as far as user surveillance and tracking was concerned it was much more intrusive and there were a lot of privacy issues that I was not happy with.

Now that I have used it for a while it has confirmed my initial feelings, before it seemed like a Windows 7 computer was your computer, whereas a Windows 10 computer is Microsoft’s computer which they are kindly letting you use.

Despite my misgivings I eventually upgraded my desktop computer to Windows 10 and all went well, I chose not to get a Microsoft account and learned how to switch off as much of the tracking as I know about and have access to, I also do not use Cortana which just seems like it refers every question to the Bing search engine. Well if I wanted to use a search engine I would use one without having to go through Cortana.

In a way my desktop machine was the least important of my computers, in years gone by it was the most important machine but Laptops have become ever more powerful until now I do most of my work on my Laptop and the desktop machine is just used for games.

The most important machine I have is my Laptop and that is where most of my programs are installed and where most of my documents, spreadsheets and databases reside. In theory my old Laptop was much more powerful than in needed to be to run Windows 10.

Because I have a lot of important documents and data on my Laptop I backed up my hard drive before trying to update to Windows 10, I took the hard disk out of my Laptop and made a clone of it on another slightly smaller hard disk.

It was fortunate that I did because the upgrade turned my Laptop into a brick. When I switched it on it would apparently boot up with the screen with the blue window and the dots chasing one another round a circle but then the screen would go black and the computer would become completely unresponsive.

When it became apparent that the upgrade didn’t work I swapped the backup disk back into the Laptop and investigated the problem. It seems that many people with Alienware MX series Laptop computers were having exactly the same problem.

Alienware is really Dell, when they brought out the MX series computers the Laptops of that series had Nvidia graphics chips but I don’t think they are the official Nvidia graphics chips. Certainly they were renamed and when Windows 7 tried to update the graphics drivers they were misidentified so several times I have had to use the safe boot option to boot with vanilla drivers and roll back the graphics drivers to the previous version. I learned not to update anything to do with the graphics drivers via Windows Update.

That safe boot option no longer exists in Windows 10.

So I decided not to upgrade my Laptop to Windows 10, I was perfectly happy with the way Windows 7 worked and decided to leave it.

However I reckoned without Microsoft’s dirty tricks.

I should have cloned the disk again because the clone now contained the corrupted version with Windows 10 installed, unfortunately hindsight is 20:20 vision and I had decided not to install Windows 10 so I thought I was safe. It was one of the things I intended to do at some point but never got round to it.

One day whilst using the Laptop a dialog appeared saying that the upgrade to Windows 10 had been scheduled for a date which I didn’t take note of, I just cancelled the dialog box assuming that this would cancel the purpose of the dialog. However unknown to me Microsoft had scheduled the update and cancelling the dialog did not cancel the scheduled update.

A few days later I had left my Laptop on doing a virus scan and had occasion to go out in the car to pick up my daughter from her boyfriends house. When I came back the Laptop was in the middle of installing the update to Windows 10, apparently it must have downloaded it and started installing it without my consent or instigation. I thought about switching it off in the middle of the installation but decided against it.

Right after the update Windows 10 appeared to work, for a short time, but then it updated its video drivers and the screen went to 800 by 600 in 256 colours. I thought maybe a reboot would clear the problem but instead it booted to the black screen after showing the screen with the blue window and the dots chasing one another round a circle. After booting up it was completely unresponsive.

So safe boot doesn’t work with Windows 10, the option to go back to Windows 7 only works if you have a working computer which can respond to the command and I have not got a DVD from which I can install a fresh copy of Windows 7, my laptop was provided without media, there was an emergency partition on the hard disk from which I might be able to install Windows 7 if the computer still worked and if it has not been erased by Windows 10.

As far as I have been able to find out the latest video drivers from Nvidia have been deliberately tweaked to fail on non Nvidia hardware, they say that their drivers work on all genuine Nvidia hardware. Alienware (aka Dell) say that they are not going to update the video drivers because the MX series Laptops are obsolete.

Thanks a bunch Nvidia!   Thanks a bunch Alienware!

In the future it is likely that I will have to purchase new computing equipment eventually either for myself or recommend which equipment is to be purchased at work, you can be sure that none of this equipment will be from Dell or Alienware and none of it will have Nvidia graphics cards. This is a pity because Dell do make good monitors.

And of course Microsoft are a big enough company that they feel that they can take a dump on individual customers with impunity, they couldn’t care less.  And they are right of course, there is little I can do to make my complaints heard, apart from expressing them in this blog.

Microsoft don’t seem to have any sort of complaints department, telephone line or e-mail address to handle unhappy customers. I think they know that if they opened anything like that it would get swamped immediately.

I have installed Ubuntu Linux on my old Laptop but of course it won’t run most of the Windows programs I know and love. So I ended up having to buy a new Laptop. And some of the software which I had on the old Laptop was licensed to that computer and won’t activate on the new computer. There are only a few companies who have licensing as pernicious as Microsoft and so only one other non-microsoft program was shackled to the old laptop. But I have had to buy a new copy of Microsoft Office (2013, not the 365 rental version).

So this supposedly ‘Free’ update to Windows 10 has cost me £550 for a new Laptop, £100 for a new copy of Microsoft Office and £60 for replacement of other software.  Over £700 !

Needless to say I am unimpressed with the way Microsoft have rolled out (some might say steamrollered out) Windows 10.

 

A Fonts Tale.

I’m back. Did ya miss me?

My last post on this blog was nearly a year ago. I have been working on something big which didn’t leave me much time for other things but that is finished now so I now have time to post again.

So, what have I been doing?

Well I have been a connoisseur of fonts for a long time, back before the days of true type I designed bitmap fonts for the Atari ST.

Since getting the PC many years ago I haven’t actually designed any fonts, just used and collected them, and I have a sizeable collection.

I was always looking for the perfect font for body text. One which fulfilled my personal preferences. There were many which ticked a lot of the boxes but there wasn’t one which ticked all the boxes.

For body text you want something which is very legible and without too much character, Fonts with a lot of character are fine for titles or short captions but if you are reading long passages of it then bland is best, having said that there are certain elements of style which are beneficial in body text.

In January 2015 I became aware of a program called Font Forge, it is a true type font editor which is free and open source. I downloaded it and started work to create my perfect font.

But it was hard work, there is a lot to learn. Font Forge is cumbersome and non intuitive. Some parts of it, like hinting, are very arcane. And then there were the bugs, the program hasn’t been finished to a point where it is stable. I kept getting crashes. To be fair the community surrounding this program is very helpful and new versions are constantly coming out to fix problems when they arise.

One of these new versions fixed some of my problems and the program was much more stable after that.

About two or three months into the development of the font I bought a font editor program called Font Creator. At the time I wondered about the wisdom of spending so much but looking back it was a good move.

Many of the Font Editors which are available are very expensive so I was surprised at the modest cost of Font Creator compared to some font editors , it is less than the price of a well known word processor (you know the one I mean).

Font Creator automates a lot of functions which are done manually in Font Forge. The drawing tools are quite intuitive, for anyone with experience using a mechanical CAD program they will be very easy to learn.

At some point I will do a comparative review of Font Forge and Font Creator, but that will be a separate post.

At first I had intended to do a small font just for my own use with a minimal set of characters but then other people became interested in it and I decided to make it suitable for a public release. I tried to make it generally useful to as many people as possible and so I started filling in the blanks, the European accented characters, the Eastern European characters, the Nordic characters and eventually Cyrillic, Armenian and Georgian.

At this point I had to come up with a name and it seemed that all the sensible names were already taken. If you do a search for ‘<prospective name> font’ on a web search engine then it always comes back with a hit. One of my colleagues at work suggested that I call the font after my main character on the MMORPG Guild Wars 2 and so the name of the font is ‘Kelvinch‘ for reasons which are unlikely to become clear to anyone who doesn’t know the origin of that name.

Kelvinch Advert

A friend on the font forum called Bhikkhu Pesala gave me permission to use some of the blocks of characters from his Pali font and so my font acquired Dingbats, Miscellaneous Symbols, Geometric Shapes and Arrows. Bhikkhu Pesala has produced many really fantastic free fonts.

Eventually my font grew to about three and a half thousand characters, there are some easter eggs in there as well. If you want to know where these can be found you might find some clues in the fontlog.txt file which documents the development of the font.

Kelvinch was started in January 2015 and finished in May 2016, a lot of work has gone into it and it is yours for free, all you have to do is download and install. It can be downloaded from the Deviant Art website. Don’t let the ‘Deviant’ bit put you off, Deviant Art is probably the largest art repository on the internet and only a very small percentage of the content is pornographic.

Enjoy!

 

An Idiosyncratic Review of LyX

I tried LyX some years ago but I didn’t really ‘get’ the program, it just seemed like a needlessly complex word processor, and it wasn’t WYSIWYG. But since that time I have been using ConnectedText which definateley isn’t WYSIWYG and have gradually become accustomed to working in different modes. I was reminded of LyX recently and so have given it another go.

LyX is a free and open source document processor running on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux/Unix. Its proponents call it a ‘document processor’ rather than a ‘word processor’ because unlike a standard word processor, LyX encourages an approach to writing based on the content and structure of the document, not it’s appearance.The writers of LyX have adopted the term WYSIWYM to describe the approach.

It is a graphical front end for a LaTeX typesetting engine (MiKTeX) so the final output can be quite good if you manage to get a font you like.

Using LyX you are expected to concentrate on writing, leaving the typesetting to the software. This is a similar approach to using styles in a conventional word processor but instead of styles being optional they are mandatory, you may override them if you wish but that takes extra effort.

LyX is a bit overkill for short notes or letters. But for long and complex documents LyX can save a lot of time and effort. There are many pre defined document templates which make it easier to make a document which conforms to a particular set of requirements. For instance there are templates for writing articles in the format required by academic journals, there is a book template, there is another template for writing a film/play script.

LyX automates the formatting according to a predefined set of rules, this gives consistency throughout the document. For example, you can have all your headings in the size and font you want but when you make this change it will affect all the headings, you don’t have to go through your document changing them all individually.

LyX has a concept called ‘environments’. These are just like styles in a conventional word processor. Each piece of text in your document has to be put in the correct environment, if no environment is set then it will be in the default body text environment of ‘Standard’. No text exists without being in an environment. The environment sets the font, the size, the indent and everything else about the text is defined by its environment. There are environments for headings, subheadings, sub-subheadings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, tables, bibliographies, footnotes, references, etc..

There is also some intelligent automation, by default all headings (at whatever level) get placed in a table of contents, if you want a table of contents then you need do nothing, but if you don’t want a table of contents then you can delete it. References are also intelligent, if you refer in your text to ‘figure 1 on page 7’ and then you add more figures and text before the target of the reference it automatically changes the number to refer to the same figure on whatever page it ends up on.

One thing which I thought was quite neat, usually the reference would be something like ‘refer to Section 3.7 on page xx‘ where xx is the page number but if the target is within one page of the reference then it changes to ‘refer to Section 3.7 on the previous page’ or ‘refer to Section 3.7 on the next page’.

The types of environment available is different for different document types.

And of course you can insert tables, graphics, bitmap images and even SVG files which are good for drawing diagrams in Inkscape but which Microsoft Word has great difficulty with. There is an excellent equation editor. The equations have a particular LaTeX styling which sets them apart from the main text, but that is not a bad thing. The equations can be numbered to make it easier to refer to them from the text.

When you install LyX you get a lot of other programs installed as well, Ghostscript, Perl, Awk and MiKTeX amongst others. MiKTeX is an open source implementation of LaTeX, this is the program which produces the output. With the default settings the output produced looks exactly like all the Linux DocBook documentation files along with that thin ugly anaemic looking font they use.

Fonts are a problem, LyX uses postscript type 1 fonts, you can use true type fonts in your documents but you then limit the options for the rendering of your document. If you use the postscript fonts then there are only a few supplied with LyX, most of them are not very pleasing to the eye, there are a couple which are OK but the default serif font is perhaps the worst of the lot.

This is very frustrating for me because I have many postscript type 1 fonts available but installing these in MiKTeX is a hideously complex task and so far I have been unsuccessful. The task of installing a font should not be that difficult, it should at least be documented somewhere.

LyX Badfont

An example of the hideous postscript font used by default if you don’t choose another, but the choice is very limited.

At first sight LyX looks like a conventional word processor, it is not until you start typing that you realise how different it really is, you have no control of spacing. Hitting return many times inserts one carriage return, hitting space many times inserts one space, hitting TAB does nothing. All the content is typeset and rendered by LyX, you don’t have to think about the spacing and the layout. Someone who only has experience of Microsoft Word will find this disconcerting at first.

LyX Main Screen

LyX main screen with the manual opened for editing.

You can control all the aspects of the layout, the spacing between paragraphs, the margins and all the rest but you do it for the whole document. You have to get used to working at a higher level of abstraction.

LyX has no problem with handling very large documents. The table of contents which is continuously updated can be viewed as a panel at the side of the text. This acts as an excellent outline, you can jump to whatever section or subsection you want just by clicking on it and sections can also be moved about, promoted and demoted just like in an outlining program.

In some ways the separation of edit mode from output mode can be more convenient than a conventional word processor. You can enlarge the screen fonts to suit your needs but the text wraps so it is all still on the screen, but this does not affect the formatting of the final output.

There are many manuals supplied with LyX, all in LyX format. They are a very comprehensive reference for LyX. They can be printed out to PDF format to read and if you use the default settings with postscript fonts everything will work as expected, however if you typeset them with true type fonts sometimes they will cause errors or crash the program when you try to export them.

LyX has very limited import facilities, it can import LaTeX or plain ASCII text from the clipboard or from a file, it can also import various spreadsheet files or a CSV file into a table. It also lists LyX files as an import option but to me importing files in the format of the program is not an import, I think what they mean is inserting one LyX file into another.

The export facilities are a little more extensive, you can send the output to DVI, EPS, HTML, LaTeX, Open Document Format, PDF (various flavours), plain text, postscript and even to a printer.

Will LyX become my main word processor?

Probably not.

For short documents, notes and organisational stuff I use ConnectedText. For longer documents Scrivener is hard to beat. But LyX is free and Scrivener costs $40.  I can see that LyX could be very useful if I were writing something like a book or a doctoral thesis and I didn’t want to spend any money.

LyX is a very powerful and quirky program but it still has some rough edges.