Mapping and Outlining, finding a path.

If you have a large collection of notes then there will be times when you cannot find the note which you want to find even though you know that it exists somewhere within the collection of documents.  This is a problem which has existed for as long as there have been collections of documents.  Over the years librarians have come up with many tools for dealing with this problem and many of these tools have been adapted for the digital era.  Things like references (links), indexes (tags) and categories have been used in computer programs to ease the location of information.

The art of a good note taking program is providing facilities for the user to be able to locate an item within their notes even though they have forgotten almost everything about it.

So how can you locate an item of information?  It is all in the metadata, the information about information.  If you have a large corpus of notes without any metadata then they might as well be written in a foreign language for all the good they will be to you.  It is worth the time and effort to add a relevant metadata to a note as you create it whilst it is still fresh in your mind.  These are the clues which will lead you back to this note in the future.  Think of it as having a conversation with your future self.  Think of how you would locate this note if you didn’t know where it was, what tags would you search for?  What would you expect it to be linked to?  What might you search for?  Make sure that the terms you might search for appear in the text, if not then include them as a list at the end of the note.

Metadata comes in many forms, not just the obvious ones.

One form of metadata which is often overlooked but always relied upon is location, people navigate to where they last saw the item they are looking for.  This is especially useful as it requires less verbal attention and more visual attention, people do it without thinking about it and whilst concentrating on something else which is why it is so often overlooked.

Search is often portrayed as the most useful way of finding things but in my experience it is not used as often as the other methods.  Search is less well used than it would be because it involves a break in concentration.  If you are in the middle of composing a document or trying to find understanding of some difficult problem then you have to stop concentrating on the problem at hand and think about search terms.  In my experience this break in concentration is obtrusive.

Search can be made easier by the use of tags, particularly if the tagging system is hierarchical and has inheritance.  Selecting from a list is easier, quicker and less prone to errors than typing search terms.  In my opinion InfoQube has the best hierarchical tagging system of any program available at the time of writing, closely followed by ConnectedText.  Try to choose tags which distinguish items rather than tags which just describe it’s characteristics.

Links from one note to another are very important.  The act of linking from one note to another is arguably the most important aspect of note taking and it should be as quick and easy as possible.  ConnectedText is unrivalled in this area.  One can insert a link by just putting the [[Page Name]] in square brackets which is much less of a break in concentration whilst you are composing a document.  ConnectedText can also automatically convert the names of other pages which occur in a note into links and it can also show which pages link to the current page (backlinks).

Another form of metadata used to locate things is the favourites list.

One form of metadata which has been touted as being new with the digital age is mapping, mind maps and concept maps.  However I think that these are not as useful as they are made out to be by many people.  The examples which are given to illustrate the usefulness of mapping are usually small and fit on one screen, real uses of mapping would probably be much bigger and consequently less useful.

In the following discussion I will focus on Mind Maps but the points raised are equally as valid for concept maps.  A concept map is just a hierarchy where an item may have more than one parent and so may appear in the outline in more than one place.

There is a lot of hype about Mind Maps and their use in navigating data.  There are a number of companies who present Mind Maps as being a really wonderful solution to visualising interconnections between data, and for small data sets this is undoubtedly true but it becomes less so for large data sets.

A Mind Map is topologically equivalent to a simple hierarchy which could be expressed as an outline.  In my opinion the fact that the outline can be scrolled in one dimension makes the outline more useful in the navigation of data.

In many programs using a mind map you have to arrange the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner which detracts from the time you can spend on other things.  People waste time on the layout of the map rather than thinking about the content of the map.  Whereas with an outline there are simple rules which the program follows to automatically arrange the tree.

Once a mind map or concept map has grown as big as the screen on which it is being displayed there arises a problem of how it can grow any further.  You could make the branches of the map ever smaller but you eventually have to use a magnifying glass to read the text.  A better solution is to only display part of the map.

It seems to me that the conventional way of displaying a mind map has no advantages over the simple outline and has some disadvantages.

One could accept these limitations of mapping and work around them as the outline accepts the limitations of a one dimensional list and works around them.  In such a map the layout would be automatic and only the relevant part of the map would be displayed.  This would make the map more useful in my opinion.

A good example of what is possible is a program called The Brain (a.k.a Personal Brain).  This program only displays a small part of the map at any one time.  One item has the focus and the program only displays those items which are linked to it.  In practice this is a very good solution.

The developer of this program Harlan Hugh took out software patents on this layout and has aggressively defended them in the past.  One can find a list of these patents at https://patents.google.com/?assignee=Thebrain+Tech+Corp .

It seems wrong to me that a company can take out a patent on such a basic idea, a layout which has been used by genealogists for many centuries, one node has the focus, it’s parents are above, children below and siblings to the side.  The sole purpose of these patents is to stifle competition from it’s rivals.

The main patent in this list relevant to the automatic layout of maps is US6918096B2Method and apparatus for displaying a network of thoughts from a thought’s perspective however this patent has expired “due to failure to pay maintenance fee” on 12th July 2017.

It seems to me that a map laid out in this way is much more useful than a mind map which tries to display the whole map on one screen.  Each item is shown in context and only the items connected to it are displayed.  If you move the focus then the map is re-drawn with the focussed node at the centre.  The displayed map is always the same size no matter how big the whole map grows, this is mentally more manageable.

This way of displaying a mind map is fundamentally different from an outline and deserves it’s place in note taking programs.

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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.

 

A Cornucopia of Programs

Information Tools

I have not posted in a while (I’ve been busy) so I decided to do something special.  This is a list of all the information tools I could have found in my search for the perfect note taking program.  This is just a list, these are not reviews, just a few remarks on my impressions of the program.  I haven’t even tried many of them so being on this list is not an endorsement it just means they exist.  Not being on the list doesn’t mean anything either, it only means I must have missed it.  Some are free and almost all the others have a free trial period.

The prices were correct in October 2014, after that they may change.

 

My Personal Preferences

Out of all the note taking programs which I have tried Ultra Recall and MyInfo are undoubtedly my favourites.  Ultra Recall is more powerful and is probably the one I should be using but MyInfo has a better user interface and although it is not as powerful it is easier to use and the information you want is easier to find in MyInfo.  I ought to be using Ultra Recall but the program I find myself using on a day to day basis for general organisation tasks is MyInfo simply because its easier.  This blog post is being composed in MyInfo.

For serious writing Scrivener is unrivalled.

If I wanted a Wiki then Connected Text is the tool I would use.

For drawing concept maps, organisation charts and just laying out ideas graphically to sort out my thoughts VUE is the tool which I use, for mind maps I use Freeplane.

 

So.  What is available?

 

Note Taking Programs

Ultra Recall

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99  or $49
Website    http://www.kinook.com/UltraRecall/

This is a very powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching.  Arbitrary metadata may be associated with any item in the database.  A full review is here.

Although Ultra Recall is very powerful I can’t help feeling that this is a program which keeps adding feature upon feature until the simple things you used to do are no longer simple, and the whole thing starts to feel overwhelming.

 

MyInfo

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $99.95  or $49.95
Website    http://www.milenix.com/myinfo

This is a powerful note taking program with a lot of facilities, it is not quite as powerful as Ultra Recall but it is more user friendly.  Tagging/Keywords are much easier to use and searching is easier.  It can handle very large amounts of data without a slow down in either the navigation or searching, but the opening of a large file does slow down.  The metadata is the same for all items in the database but multiple databases with different data sets and different metadata may be open simultaneously.  A full review is here.

WhizFolders

Usage       have used in the past
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95  or $24.95
Website    http://www.whizfolders.com/

This is a classic two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree.  It does have tags (keywords) but it feels like they were added as an afterthought.  Editing is a little awkward as you have to switch between edit mode and view mode.  It has little to recommend it over MyInfo or Ultra Recall except for the price. There is a review.

Essential PIM Pro

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          £26.88
Website    http://www.essentialpim.com/pc-version

This is an E-mail program with a calendar and reminders, it has tasks which may be given deadlines and it also has a hierarchical note taking section.  There are no keywords or tags but there are a limited number of categories (editable) which may be assigned to all types of items.  Linking (both in and out) is very good.  It is also available for various platforms, there is an android and iOS version available, the different versions can share data.

The note taking section is not as good as some of the note taking programs in this list but note taking is not the primary purpose of this program.

Memo Master

Usage       used to use this
License     Commercial
Price          £39.00
Website    http://www.jbsoftware.org/memomaster/details.htm

Memo Master is a two pane organiser.  It supports spreadsheets as one of the types of document instead of just text documents.  There are many facilities but a lot of them are well hidden in the interface, this makes it awkward and tiresome to use, but it does tick the box in the list of features in the advertising.  The user interface feels like it was designed by someone who never had to use the program.

There is a free version of this program with a lot of the facilities disabled, but annoyingly the menu entries and buttons for these parts of the program are still there.  If you click on one it brings up a dialog box telling you that you need to buy the full version to use this feature.

Right Note

Usage       never used
License     Commercial
Price          $59.95 or  $29.95 — £40.78 or £20.37
Website    http://bauerapps.com/rightnote/

I have never used this program, not even the free trial version but it looks good on their website.  This is a two pane organiser with a very colourful user interface.  It supports spreadsheets as one of its document types.  I don’t know how easy it is to use so I will not pass any judgements but it’s probably worth taking a look.

Silver Note

Usage      Tried it out
License    Commercial
Price         $49.95
Website    http://www.silver-note.com/

This may well be a good program when they get it finished but at the moment it is a beta test version being sold as a finished product.  There are no import facilities.  The drawing tools are buggy.  However this program shows great promise.  It has a novel hierarchical tagging scheme which is truly innovative.  I wish them good luck with their development of this program.

Debrief Notes

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://debriefnotes.com/

This was one of the most awful restrictive badly designed programs I have ever had the misfortune to use.  The user interface looks like it was designed in the mid 1990’s with a Borland style, don’t get me wrong many user interfaces built using the Borland tools were very good, it just depends on the programmer who designed it.  I only mention this as an indication of the vintage of this program.  No development has gone on since that time.

This program makes the assumption that you don’t need to link in or out (no you can’t even have a link to a file on the local file system) and that you will use their program for everything.

This program is no longer being developed it is just being sold.

KeepNote

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://keepnote.org/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a three pane organiser, the pages are formatted in HTML.  This program performed very well under load, it can handle very large data sets easily, the navigation did not slow down but the searching did slow down in proportion to the size of the data set.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it does perform well as a very basic (simple) organiser and it is free.

Keynote NF

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    https://code.google.com/p/keynote-nf/

This is a free and open source note taking program.  It is a two pane organiser, the pages are rich text format.  This program did not perform very well under load, it slowed down considerably with a moderate data set, the navigation slowed down in proportion to the size of the data set, a few very large items could slow it down just as much as many small data items.  This program does not have keywords/tags and has very few advanced facilities but it is free.

SEO Notes

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.seonote.info/

This is a very basic free two pane organiser with very few facilities.  I have not tested this program, reading the documentation was enough to convince me that there were much better offerings out there which are free.

The Guide

Usage       Used to use it
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://theguide.sourceforge.net/

The Guide is a simple two pane hierarchical outlining program with no keywords or tagging.  I used it as a writing tool some years ago but there were some instances where it lost some of the text, I think there is a bug or two in there somewhere.  Even when working perfectly it has little to recommend it over some of the other free outliners (like KeepNote).

Personal Knowbase

Usage       Used to use it
License     Commercial
Price          $49.95
Website    http://www.bitsmithsoft.com/product.htm

This is a strange program, there is no tree, the tagging scheme is how you locate the items you want.  This program has one of the best tagging schemes that I have seen but it’s a bit of a one trick pony.  Although the tagging scheme is excellent the editing of notes is not very good and there is no support for tables or images in items and only very basic formatting of text.  This program is no longer under development, for the past few years there have been only very few updates and these are only maintenance updates (fixing bugs).

TreeDBNotes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $34.95 or free for a very limited version
Website    http://www.mytreedb.com/treedbnotes_pro.html

I have not tried this program but it seems like a fairly ordinary two pane organiser with a hierarchical tree in the left pane and the item content in the other pane.  The paid version does have tagging but I don’t know how easy this feature is to use.

Leo Editor

Usage       Not used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://leoeditor.com/

Leo is a plain text outliner and organiser which is also an IDE (integrated development environment).  This was written by programmers for programmers, the people who designed it definitely use it the user interface is well designed but a little esoteric.  Leo was written in python and it works well as a python IDE.  Python scripts can be associated with any outline item.  Leo is very powerful but not very graphical.

AM-Notebook

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          29.95 Euros
Website    http://www.aignes.com/notebook.htm

AM-Notebook is a two pane organiser, but with a few extras.  It has spreadsheets as one of its item types and it has diagrams as one of its item types.  It also has a Calendar, todo list and contacts list, these features are very similar to Microsoft outlook features.  There is no tagging or keywords.

AskSam

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $395.00 or $149.00
Website    ?

This program used to be the biggest (and one of the more expensive) two pane organisers around but its web page seems to undergoing maintenance, but it has now been undergoing maintenance for a couple of years.  Now I get an error message when I try to go to the page.  Version 7 is the most recently released version.  It has lots of features but it’s very expensive compared to Ultra Recall.

Black Hole Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $24.95
Website    http://www.starresoft.com/bho.htm

This is a three pane organiser like KeepNote.  I have not tried this but it seems to have a lot of good features including user defined metadata.

MyBase

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $59.00
Website    http://www.wjjsoft.com/mybase.html

This is one that I have tried.  It has a lot of good features but there are also some bad features, like the linking not being very good, it doesn’t support universal links.  One of the good features is a hierarchical tagging/keyword system.  It does not handle large data sets very well, there seems to be an upper limit of 300MB on the file size.

Surfulater

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $79.00
Website    http://www.surfulater.com/

I have not tried this program but maybe I ought to have done, from the information on the website and a review I read the main emphasis of this program seems to be collecting copies of web pages into a database which can then be viewed offline at a later date even if the web page has changed or no longer exists.  Of course you can also take notes with it.  The web clippings are arranged into a hierarchical tree.  There is also a hierarchical tagging scheme, which seems surprisingly good.

EverNote

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Sign up for free or paid account with a monthly subscription
Website    https://evernote.com/

This is an online note taking solution.  You need to get an account to use it.  If you always have a connection to the internet then it is probably a good idea but if like me you spend a large percentage of the day without a connection then it doesn’t look so attractive.  There are versions of this program for android and iOS and you can share data between devices.  It is possible to get a ‘Premium Account’ which you pay a monthly subscription for.  If you have a Premium Account then you can download your notes onto your computer or phone or tablet and use them without a connection.  But you are paying each month for the privilige.  In my opinion ‘software as a service’ is a BAD idea, you rent the software, if you use it for a long time then you end up paying far more than if you had bought a high end piece of software to do the same job.

Zoot XT

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          $99.00
Website    http://www.zootsoftware.com/

Zoot is an unusual program, I am not a fan of it but you might like it.  It is a not taking software but it also includes an e-mail program, an RSS feed viewer and a web browser amongst other things.  It treats your notes just like e-mails to yourself.  The user interface is complex and I didn’t get along with it very well.

LexiCan

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          39.90 Euros
Website    http://www.lexican.net/

Yet another two pane outliner.  This one has some limitations.  There was a significant reduction in response times when the file grew to just a few hundred notes or a couple of hundred kilobytes, this is very poor in my opinion.

When you open this program it takes a very long time before even the splash screen appears, this is annoying.

LexiCan has some serious issues which hamper its use, most of the other programs can have multiple databases or files open at once.  LexiCan can only have one file open at once and when you open another file it automatically closes the file you had open.

This program is produced by a German company, it has been translated into English.  However some of the more obscure menus and dialog boxes are still in German and if you get an error which happens frequently the error message which comes up is always in German.

Noteliner

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.noteliner.org/i/Main.html

This is a single pane outliner but has an optional second pane which can be displayed or hidden.  This program is free but not open source.  This program has a lot of hidden depth to it, for instance I didn’t realise until quite recently that it does Gantt charts.

Total Text Container

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    https://sites.google.com/site/totaltextcontainer/Home

This is a quirky little program which does a lot of different things but which also has some bugs.  It is free.  It has many different item types including spreadsheets and diagrams.  There has been no development of this program for a long time.

Cinta Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $39.00 uncrippled version
Website    http://cintanotes.com/

Cinta Notes stores its notes in a chronological order but in the Pro (paid for) version you have a good tagging scheme with a hierarchical tag tree and so you can gain access to your notes organised in a way you define using this tree.  This is a plain text organiser.

Cherry Tree

Usage       Tried it out, undecided
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.giuspen.com/cherrytree/

This is one of the better free and open source note taking programs.  There is a tagging scheme but it is not terribly useful.  There is syntax highlighting for a number of different computer languages.  Images can be pasted into items.

AllMyNotes Organizer

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $25.50 or Free for a version with limited capabilities
Website    http://www.vladonai.com/

A standard two pane organiser but with a quirky colourful interface and a number of different ‘skins’ which change the appearance of the user interface.  There are lots of customisation options.  No tagging scheme but items can have alarms attached to them so that they will remind you of their alarm at a given time in the future (if you are running the program at that time), or as soon after that as they can run.

The website seems to run a perpetual ‘limited time offer’ just for your country (wherever you happen to be from).  This offer has been running for several years now, I don’t know what the limit on the time is but I don’t think there is any need to rush!

Idea Rover

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $89
Website    http://www.idearover.com/

This is a standard one/two pane outliner which is supposedly pitched towards academic writing, it has special facilities for what they call ‘structured citation extraction’ whatever that is.  In my opinion it doesn’t have anything to recommend it over Scrivener which is cheaper and better.

This program has an awkward interface with a large ‘ribbon’ of icons across the top of the screen, on a small screen (a laptop) this could get annoying.

Linked Notes

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          Free version or a $19.95 uncrippled version
Website    http://www.linkednotes.com/default.aspx

A very basic two pane organiser program with no tagging and nothing to recommend it over one of the free organiser programs like Cherry Tree or KeepNote.

Notecase Pro

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated
Website    http://www.notecasepro.com/

A two pane organiser program with lots of facilities.  There is a tagging scheme.  Files can be attached to items and alarms can also be attached to items to bring up a reminder at some point in the future.  There is a spell checker and there is a version for Android.

It might well be a good program, I have not tried it out.  The prices start low but there are many different prices you can pay for this program depending on the platform, the upgrade options, and whether you want it for more than one platform.

Microsoft OneNote

Usage       Tried it, didn’t like it
License     Commercial
Price          It’s complicated, there is a free version but it isn’t really free.
Website    http://www.onenote.com/

This is Microsofts offering in the genre of note taking programs.  I used OneNote 2007 for a while.  The more recent versions have become less useful as Microsoft moves more towards the ‘Software as a Service’ business model.

My comments here refer to the 2007 version.  The user interface is slick and well thought out, it follows all the standard windows conventions.  However many of the features aren’t as useful as they could have been, I think that many features were added in order to tick boxes in the advertising, this program is full of gimmicks which don’t really add to the usability or usefulness of the program.

For example, it has a tagging scheme but the entries are in a drop down box so when you get more than about thirty tags/categories selecting one becomes very awkward.

All the text on a page is in boxes.  This is very different to using a word processor, it is a sort of hybrid between a word processor and a desktop publishing program.  It ends up being not as good as either of them.

Writing Programs

Scrivener

Usage       Regular
License     Commercial
Price          $40 for Windows, $45 for Mac (Mac version is more advanced)
Website    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

Scrivener is in my opinion the best word processor around.  It supports not just the creation of a document but also the organisation of the notes and research for that document.  It may be used as a note taking program although this is not it’s primary purpose.  The interface is well thought out, this program has the feel of a program designed by someone who uses the program rather than by someone who’s job it is to design a program.

yWrite 5

Usage       Tried it out, didn’t like it
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

yWrite 5 is free but not open source.  It tries to be the same sort of composition tool as Scrivener but is not as good in my opinion.  Whereas Scrivener is just as good for academic writing as it is for fictional writing yWrite 5 is locked in to fictional writing.  Scrivener has a free format note taking section for research and you can organise it the way you want but yWrite 5 has sections for notes on characters and scenes and has a chronological order in which the scenes take place.  This may be OK for fictional writing but it cannot be changed if you do not want to organise your notes in this way.

SuperNoteCard (Mindola Software)

Usage       Haven’t tried it
License     Commercial
Price          $29
Website    http://www.mindola.com/index.php

This program tries to mimic note cards used by some authors to organise information.  The note cards can be very large in that they can hold an enormous amount of text.  There are many facilities for organising research and background material for the story.  It can also be used for non fiction writing and as a note taking program as the ‘factors’ and ‘categories’ can be edited to suit your own way of organising things.

Having said this I can’t help feeling that although this program is very good at what it does Scrivener does it so much better.  However Scrivener is more expensive than SuperNoteCards.

Wiki Programs

Connected Text

Usage       Used to use it regularly but has decreased recently
License     Commercial
Price          From $39.95 up to $114.95
Website    http://www.connectedtext.com/

Connected Text is a desktop Wiki.  It is incredibly powerful, there is a markup language which is relatively easy to learn the basics of but has a lot of depth so that you can perform extremely useful and complex processing of text.  But the depths are not that easy to learn.  There is an edit mode where you edit the source code for the page and a view mode where that source code is executed and the resultant page is displayed.

If you are a tech head who is completely at home working with a command line interface then you will probably like Connected Text and you will get one of the finest pieces of Wiki software ever written.  If you like doing things with a graphical user interface and like to see what you are going to get without having to switch modes then you will find it uncomfortable.

One of the major drawbacks is that you cannot cut and paste formatted text from another application and paste it into Connected Text without it looking completely different.  The style pages are formatted with is controlled by a .CSS file and formatted text will be stripped of its formatting when you paste it.

ZimWiki

Usage       Never used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://zim-wiki.org/

Zim Wiki is a simple wiki without a lot of the facilities or the complexity of Connected Text.  It is still a useful program, it is written in python and so you can run it on both Linux and Windows.  Zim Wiki is free and open source.

WikidPad

Usage       Never Used
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/

Wikid pad is another free and open source simple wiki without much of the power or the complexity of Connected Text.  It runs on WIndows, Linux and Mac.  The appearance is like a two pane organiser with the pages listed down the left side of the screen and the selected page displayed on the right.

Mapping Software

VUE

Usage       Regular
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://vue.tufts.edu/

VUE or Visual Understanding Environment is a way of setting your ideas out in a graphical way.  It is free to download from Tufts University.  It does most of what you need and very little of what you don’t need.  The user interface is simple but it has a lot of depth.  One thing it doesn’t do is print out the maps to PDF files.  However a Mac will do this natively and a Windows machine can do this if it has a PDF printing program (like PDF Creator) installed.

In my opinion this is one of the best mapping programs around, I use it regularly.

design VUE

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/designengineering/tools/designvue

Someone took the source code of VUE and added the IBIS relationship types and icons from Compendium to it.  This program does all the things which VUE does but may be used to produce Argument maps as well.  This program comes as an executable JAR file rather than being an installable EXE file.

Compendium

Usage       Used to use it regularly, not so much recently
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://www.compendiumng.org/

Compendium by the Open University must be one of the best open source free mapping tools around.  It is easy to use once you get used to the quirky user interface.  The user interface shows it’s Unix/Linux heritage and does not conform to Windows conventions very closely.  The maps produced are easy to understand and the program has an over abundance of features.  This program feels like it was designed by a committee.  On the maps there are several different types of node including a ‘Map’ node which contains a map. When you open this node you are taken to a new map.  This means that large maps may be split into chunks.  This is quite a useful feature.

Compendium also has a tagging system, nodes may be tagged and the tags may be grouped into folders.  Sort of like a semi hierarchical tagging system.  The tagging system is quite useful.  Compendium also supports transclusion (cloning) which is also useful.

Compendium is let down by a couple of issues, one trivial and the other is a limitation on usefulness.

The trivial issue is that nodes containing text are limited to 32,767 characters of text.  If you put any more text than this into a node then it will only exist until you close the program.  When you re-open the program that text will have disappeared.  No warnings, no error messages it just isn’t there any more.  I class this bug as trivial because very few people will put 32 thousand characters (about 10 to 15 pages of A4) into a node.  But it is something to be aware of.  The text would be better split up amongst several nodes.

The limitation on usefulness is that there are no links in to the program and it does not support universal links.

CMAP Tools

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://cmap.ihmc.us/

CMAP Tools is a concept mapping program from IHMC (the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition) in Florida.

In the documentation there is a heavy emphasis on collaboration and the sharing of maps.  There are several public servers which can store your CMAPs so that they might be shared with others and IHMC provides the server software so that you can set up your own private server so that maps may be shared within an organisation.

CMAP Tools when used with the server software supports simultaneous collaborative editing of maps so that several people can edit the same map at the same time.  It also has facilities for placing annotations on the map, making suggestions and setting up discussion threads (similar to a bulletin board or forum) to facilitate communications between separate users/viewers of the same map.  Of all the programs reviewed here this one probably has the best facilities for supporting multiple users.  Compendium is the next best and it’s multi user facilities are not as good although it comes close in my opinion.

There are versions of CMAP Tools for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.  A portable version is also available which can run from a USB memory stick.

CMAP Tools is free to download but you must first provide your details and a valid E-mail address.  I have not received any spam E-mail from IHMC.

CMAP Tools is a good program but in my opinion for individual use VUE is even better.  CMAP Tools is probably better at fast layout and capture of ideas but VUE is more expressive.

Freemind and Freeplane

Usage       Often
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://freeplane.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

Freemind and Freeplane are free and open source mind mapping programs.

Freeplane is a fork of FreeMind which was one of the first free mind mapping programs available. The developers of FreeMind had a disagreement about the way in which FreeMind was to be developed and so some of them left and started Freeplane.

The programs are pretty much identical apart from one or two extras you get with Freeplane, like being able to embed universal links.

At the moment both programs have the same file format so maps may be exchanged freely between the users of both programs but this is not guaranteed to continue as the programs continue to be developed along different paths.  For me this is not an problem as I only use Freeplane, but it might be a problem for some people.  The file format used by FreeMind and FreePlane has become something of a standard, and can be imported into many other mind mapping programs, including some on the iPad and iPhone, and some browser-based, on-line mind mapping services.

These programs only do mind maps, they do not do cognitive maps.  The nodes are in a strict hierarchy and although you may create floating nodes and ad-hoc connections between nodes it would be possible but very cumbersome to construct a concept map this way.

These programs are easy to use, most of their interfaces are very simple and obvious in their functionality but there is also a lot of depth to the programs which are not obvious at first glance.  There are many advanced features, like the scripting and node attributes, which are available but do not clutter the user interface.  There are keyboard shortcuts for most common functions so that once you have learned the shortcuts you can use this program almost without reaching for your mouse.

There are versions of FreeMind and FreePlane for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Scapple

Usage       Never used it
License     Commercial
Price          $14.99
Website     http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple.php

Scapple is a mapping program similar to VUE.  I have never tried it out because VUE is free and this is $14.99 but the  video  looked very good, it seems well thought out and easy to use.  It is from the same people who wrote Scrivener and so it should be good.  It is available for Mac and Windows.

Inspiration

Usage       Tried it out
License     Commercial
Price          $39.95
Website    http://www.inspiration.com/Inspiration

Inspiration is a mapping program.  It allows other types of map besides a mind map.  Mind maps are limited to a strict hierarchy but Inspiration allows links which break the hierarchy.  It also has other ways to view the data so your map can also be viewed as an outline.

This is a well thought out and competent program but it is commercial.  Freeplane does the same thing and is free.  Inspiration does have a few extra bells and whistles but these are not particularly significant and are mainly gimmicks.

MindRaider

Usage       Used to use it regularly
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://mindraider.sourceforge.net/

MindRaider tries to be everything.  It is a mapping tool which is also an outliner and a wiki.  One of the problems with it is that it tries to cram too much onto the screen.  There are many panels around the central map and so the map is smaller and the screen looks cluttered.  On a small screen like a laptop this can be a problem.

The map is innovative in that it keeps the map centred on the selected node, very few mapping programs do this.

The notes which can be stored in nodes are plain text.

MindRaider could be quite a useful program but I must admit it is not a program I have used for any length of time, I installed it and tried it out but got frustrated with the small size of the map and all the panels clustered around it and so it fell into disuse and was eventually uninstalled.

This program is no longer being developed.  This is not a problem as long as changes to the operating system or updates to various components of the software environment don’t break the operation of the program, remember what happened to ‘Cayra’.

Blumind

Usage       Tried it out
License     Open Source/GPL
Price          Free
Website    http://blumind.org/

Blumind is a very simple and very basic mind mapping tool.  It is free to download but its facilities are uninspiring.

Instrumind Think Composer

Usage       Tried it out on two different machines, it failed!
License     Commercial
Price          $149.25 to $49.75
Website    http://www.thinkcomposer.com/

Instrumind Think Composer looks like a very interesting program, the documentation is long and detailed and shows off some very impressive capabilities.  Pity about the program.  I installed this program and ran it and the screen looked exactly as the manual had pictured it.  Unfortunately if I tried to use the program it crashes, not just once but every time and not just one type of crash but it fails in different ways, sometimes it locks up the machine so badly I have to switch the machine off to get it out of its catatonic state.

The customer support at Instrumind were monumentally unhelpful.  I have so far tried to install this program on two machines, both with the same result.

This looks like a good program and I would like to try it out.  If you want to try it then go ahead, it might work for you.  I can’t imagine the company would be able to make a living if their program failed on all machines.

Good Luck!

Other Programs

Tree Sheets

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://strlen.com/treesheets/

Tree Sheets is just like a spreadsheet for text.  It has a quirky interface which follows no conventions other than its own.  It will compress text to fit it into a box on the sheet.  So you can have pages of text compressed into on small box, it is only when you zoom in that the text becomes readable.

Apart from this one novel trick you would probably be better off using a spreadsheet.

InfoQube

Usage       Tried it out. Twice
License     Sort of Commercial but ambiguous
Price          $50
Website    http://www.infoqube.biz/

This program is just weird.  It is also very complicated.  It tries to do everything which Connected Text can do but without the markup language so everything is done through a GUI with tables of properties and context menus but there are so many options that it all becomes very messy.

This program has been in development for a long long time, the final version has always been predicted to be six months away.  In 2007 it was predicted to be six months away and now in 2014 it is still six months away.  Development seems to be progressing very slowly, I suspect that it is being developed by one person in his spare time.

On the website it says:-

While in beta, InfoQube is free to download and use.  Initial release is planned for Q4 2014.
Personal licenses will have a special introductory price of just $49.95

In the meantime … you’ve seen what can be don with InfoQube and you think it has a great potential.
Perhaps you’d like to give us a helping hand … You certainly can:

You contribute through donations which will be credited towards your purchase of InfoQube licenses!
Donate $50 or more and you’ll receive a free Personal License !

Pardon the bad grammar, this was copied straight from the website.  First thing to note is that the program stops working after the 60 day free trial period so if you want to continue using it you have to get a ‘Free Personal License’ but if you are being forced to ‘donate‘ $50 to be issued with that free license then surely you are buying the license.

The second thing to note is the mobile deadline, Q4 of 2014, when this deadline passes (which it has almost) it will be moved, probably to Q2 of 2015 untill that deadline also passes.

TreeLine

Usage       Tried it out
License     ?
Price          Free
Website    http://treeline.bellz.org/

This program is like a free form database.  It is OK but I think any of the two pane organisers would work just as well and be just as useful.  Try KeepNote or Cherry Tree instead.

Some thoughts on Writing Tools

Some while ago I wrote a review of Scrivener as a Note Taking program.  Some people liked it but there were some negative comments.  So this set me thinking about the process of writing and the tools we use to aid that process.  This is the process of writing which I am talking about, the tools will not make you a better writer, they will just make it easier to transfer your ideas into a document and to organise your thoughts in the first place.

A person who didn’t leave his name had this to say about the review :-

I have written seven novels and a memoir (all major imprints) and did it all with a nice pen and stacks of cheap composition notebooks. I wrote two of my books with a typewriter when I was younger, but gave it up as the technology got in my way. Tonight, I sit in a hotel in Oklahoma City and open an email that tells me I “MUST” read your blog post. I read it with a sense of bewilderment, as I do many of these “process” articles, because I fail to see how any of these fancy tools could ever help a person become a better writer. Writing is a creative pursuit, and as such requires the mind to be free of everything except that which involves your characters, your story, your dream world of creating fiction. All of those windows and outliners and tree notes that I see so often from young writers today take up enormous energy in – process.

God, give up thinking, discussing, arguing, writing, and putting so much effort into all the “cool” tools that can be used in the – process. Just write! Damn, a writer – writes!

Tonight, I allowed myself to be thrown off my rhythm by making the mistake of opening my email. Then I made the mistake of clicking on the link, and then I actually read this review of this tedious piece of processware called Scrivener, and then – seeing the passion you have for this – felt oddly compelled to write and offer my opinion. Why? I have no idea.

Just write.

Good luck!

 

Let’s call this person Anonymous since he/she didn’t leave their name.

I think Anonymous missed the point slightly.

Why don’t we go back to using quill pens or why not use the Roman idea of scratching your thoughts into a layer of beeswax in a wooden tray with a bronze stylus?  Why not?  Because a good modern pen and good quality paper is easier to use.  But then why not take this one step further and use something which is even easier to use, like a computer for instance?

Anonymous complained that he didn’t use a typewriter because he found that it got in the way of his writing.  If I were forced to use a typewriter I think I would find it getting in the way too, but that is no reason to abandon all technology.  The distraction free mode in Scrivener (try pressing F11) is about as close as one could come to the perfect writing environment where the technology doesn’t get in the way of the writing (in my opinion).

I do have some sympathy for one of the points Anonymous was trying to make.  Some people get so caught up in the style of their documents, pretending to be typesetters and layout artists.  They mess about with the font, the size of the text, the style and positioning of the headings, all the formatting which should be done as the very last step is seen as an integral part of the writing of the document and so the document becomes more about style than substance.  The document does not need all that, it should be just as powerful if it is delivered in plain text without any of the polish.  The polish can be added later, the document must be able to stand on its own because no amount of fancy formatting will make the content any better.

To write you need a good idea and enough intellect and eloquence to capture that idea and make it understandable to others.  That is a given.  But the process can be made a lot easier by the tools you use.  Yes you can write a novel with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, but it is hard work.  And if you develop a new idea for some section of your work which you have already written down then you have to either re-write the whole thing or get out the scissors and sellotape.

I have always found that a piece of writing takes on a life of its own and continues to develop during the writing process, new ideas come to mind, things change, and if that has repercussions for an earlier part of the work then so be it. The work is a lot easier to revise using a word processor than it is using a typewriter.

Having the right set of tools doesn’t make you a better writer, there is no substitute for inspiration and intellect.  It just makes the writing process a whole lot easier.

But having the right tools to hand can also help in other ways.  The note taking programs I have been reviewing in this blog can help to organise and develop ideas.

Many people think of a word processor as just a glorified typewriter.  Indeed some word processors are just glorified typewriters, a tool for dumping your thoughts into a document, but just dumping your thoughts into a document from memory rarely produces any new insights.

The correct writing environment can help the thinking processes which produces good writing.  It can help organise and re-organise thoughts in a way that produces new ways of looking at things and helps the ideas jump off the page and into the readers mind.  If you ask someone who does research at what point they actually make their discoveries.  Usually they say that it is not whilst collecting information in the lab, but during the organizing and writing up of their notes when ideas come together in ways that produce new insights.

Good thinking is hard work and so anything which aids this process is helpful.

Fundamental to the process of writing is the ability to organise the document into a meaningful structure.  The tool usually used is the hierarchical outline, so in my opinion a word processor which does not do outlining is just a glorified typewriter.

Creating hierarchies (naming, categorising and organising) is very important for producing insights.  Hierarchies are everywhere, almost any document divided into sections started out as an outline.  Anonymous talked of Scrivener as “processware” which implies a linear process, I think it is just the opposite of “processware” instead it can be used to represent the relationships between ideas, people and events, and help to analyse the relationships and organise the whole thing into a structure that is meaningful to the writer and hopefully to the reader as well.  Usually a clear and well thought out hierarchy leads to a well structured and understandable finished document.

All scrivener needs is a mind mapping tool and it would be perfect (in my opinion).

The most commonly used word processor is Microsoft Word and it is no surprise that has an excellent outlining mode.  I hate to support the Microsoft hegemony but I must admit that Microsoft Word is a good word processor.  But there are free and open source word processors out there (Open Office and Libre Office) so given the high price of Microsoft Word why hasn’t everyone switched to the free ones?

It’s because Open Office and Libre Office are just glorified typewriters.

I think the main reason for this is that neither Open Office or Libre Office have an outline mode, they do have something called Navigator which is a pathetic partial implementation of an outliner.  Furthermore I think that if the designers of Open Office and Libre Office had implemented a good outlining mode then these tools would be much more widely used by writers, business people and academia, and they would challenge Microsoft Word for supremacy.

So … What are the best tools for writing and organising thoughts.  Well  …  It just depends on what you want to do with it.  These are all my personal very subjective opinions so feel free to disagree.

For writing, both fictional writing and academic writing the best program has to be Scrivener.

For organisation it just depends on what you want.

If you want something like a database of notes where the way the program works is already sorted out and you just have to learn how to use it then Ultra Recall is hard to beat but beware, don’t get slack on adding the metadata or it will become a disorganised mess very quickly.

If one the other hand you want a Wiki where you define how your notes will look and you define the structure of the notes (how they are arranged and connected) a bit like writing a website for your notes, and you can even define how the notes will behave (by writing a script in Python), then Connected Text is the program for you.  It is more powerful than any of the other note taking programs reviewed but the learning curve is quite steep.

As an adjunct to an outliner or note taking program VUE as a mapping tool is very useful.

Review of CMAP Tools

CMAP Tools is a concept mapping program from IHMC (the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition) in Florida.

In the documentation there is a heavy emphasis on collaboration and the sharing of maps.  There are several public servers which can store your CMAPs so that they might be shared with others and IHMC provides the server software so that you can set up your own private server so that maps may be shared within an organisation.

CMAP Tools when used with the server software supports simultaneous collaborative editing of maps so that several people can edit the same map at the same time.  It also has facilities for placing annotations on the map, making suggestions and setting up discussion threads (similar to a bulletin board or forum) to facilitate communications between separate users/viewers of the same map.  Of all the programs reviewed here this one probably has the best facilities for supporting multiple users.  Compendium is the next best and it’s multi user facilities are not as good although it comes close in my opinion.

There are versions of CMAP Tools for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.  A portable version is also available which can run from a USB memory stick.

CMAP Tools is free to download but you must first provide your details and a valid E-mail address.  I have not received any spam E-mail from IHMC.

CMAP Tools is a good program but in my opinion for individual use VUE is even better.  CMAP Tools is probably better at fast layout and capture of ideas but VUE is more expressive.

 

Overall score = 24 out of 50

 

1.  Organisation        =    6

The placement of nodes in CMAP Tools is completely manual.  However having laid out your map you can get the program to re-arrange it for you but once the program has re-arranged your map the only way back is to manually drag everything back to the way it was, undo doesn’t work for the layout.

Concept maps are similar to mind maps but they have a different emphasis and use.  Mind maps are arranged as a tree hierarchy whilst concept maps are a network.  Concept maps can have descriptions associated with their links to define the relationship between the nodes being connected.  Sentences can be implied by the concepts and their linking phrases.  Mind maps generally do not have link phrases.

CMAP Tools can do both mind maps and cognitive maps but cognitive maps are easier to construct with this software.  The links do have linking phrases and these can be linked to, so links can split and combine.  Floating nodes are supported.  You can have multiple maps on one sheet, the sheet is extremely large, I kept placing nodes further and further out but I was unable to find the limits of the sheet.  You extend the sheet by trying to drag something past the edge of the sheet, the sheet just grows to accommodate it.

Nodes can link to other CMAPs (in a similar way to Compendium) which is useful in splitting subject matter into neat bundles, however each new map is a different file which can lead to a proliferation of files.  Compendium’s system where all the sub maps are part of the same database is the better way to do this.  Nodes and maps can be nested within other nodes but this is not the same as linking to a different map, the sub map can be expanded and folded away as needed.

As well as looking at the content of your map as a map you may also view it as an outline.  CMAP Tools allows floating topics and annotations.

 

2.  Attachments to nodes    =    4

Nodes can contain ‘links to resources’.  All the examples in the documentation refer to image files, but other types of resource can also be attached to nodes.  To add a resource you either right click on a node and select the ‘Add & Edit links to resources …’ option from the context menu or just drag a file into the CMAP Tools window and drop it on a node.

Once the resource is attached there is the problem of how to use that resource.  Unfortunately this is not very obvious from the documentation, I found it by messing about with the program.  The first assumption I made was to double click the link, but nothing happens, I suspect that many people would do the same when first taking a look at the program.  But that is not how you open a link in CMAP Tools.  You single click on the link and a small box opens up containing the title of the resource (or a list if there are more than one) then you click on the name in the box.

If the link is to a data file then CMAP Tools opens the default program for that file, if the link is to a data file or to any executable file then an annoying dialog box opens to ask you if you really do want to open the link.

This program does not appear to support universal links.

Nodes can have information attached to them but this is not as useful as the notes attached to VUE nodes.  When you select the Add Info… Option from either the Tools menu or from the context menu which appears when you right click on a node you get a dialog box with two panels, one is for the mouseover text, the other is hidden text.  The mouseover text appears in a small box in very small writing when you move your mouse over the node, sort of like a tooltip.  The other text is hidden and the only way you can view it is within the Add Info dialog box.  The hidden text may seem pointless but it can be searched for and so it does mean that you can add keywords to nodes.

Neither of these facilities are very useful.  If you add too much text to a node the whole program slows down to a crawl.  The tooltip text is too small for comfortable reading of large bodies of text and the hidden text is just a bad way of implementing a proper keywords system.  However you can link nodes to plain text files which can contain as much text as you like.

 

3.  Appearance        =    5

CMAP Tools has its own style.  The default is boxes with slightly rounded corners and straight lines but the style of lines and nodes can be changed once they have been placed.  It would have been nice to be able to change the default style.  The range of looks available is quite good, colours of various elements can be set as well as nodes having drop shadows.

 

CMAP Tools
By default nodes and links are positioned manually.  The map can have an image as its background.

 

4.  Ease of use        =    5

The program is easy to use and it is simple to make a layout with lots of nodes and links fast, just jotting down brief details to be fleshed out later, as such it would be good for use in a lecture theatre for quickly capturing the salient points of the lecture.

The keyboard shortcuts are not customisable.  Some aspects of the program are not very obvious (like links) but once you have figured out some of the more arcane aspects and with regular use it should become simple to operate.

The selected node is not placed in the centre of the screen.  Positioning of the map is done by dragging sliders on the edge of the map.  The map can be very large and an overview is available.

There is a tool for making presentations with your maps and it seems simpler and more straightforward to use than the one which comes with VUE.  With VUE you set a path through your map, with CMAP Tools you define a series of slides which are to be presented full screen.

The program is easy to use but it has nothing to recommend it over VUE, however VUE does have several advantages over CMAP Tools.

 

5.  Import – Export        =    4

The import facilities of CMAP Tools are only available from the ‘Views’ window.  It can import from a text file (although the format of this file is not given in the documentation), from a CMAP Outline, from an Inspiration file or a Life Map file and from .CXL .XTM .XCM and .IVML files.  This may seem like an extensive list but if we were to eliminate the format only used by CMAP Tools then it becomes text, Inspiration or Life Map.

Inspiration is a commercial mind mapping and outlining tool, it is not expensive but beware if you want to buy it the company will only sell it to you if you are in America, they do not ship to the rest of the world, just another example of American parochial attitudes.

I was not able to find the Life Map application on a quick Google search but this might have been because the list was clogged with insurance companies wanting to provide me with a life map.

The export facilities were more useful.  The export functions are available from a menu on the map window itself.  CMAP Tools exports to various image file formats, to .PDF and postscript files, to .SVG files, to a web page, to a text file, to a Life Map file or to the CMAP tools files, CMAP Outline, .CXL .XTM .XCM and .IVML formats.

The ability to export your map to an SVG file or a PDF file or a web page is especially useful and welcome.  The .SVG files can be edited by Inkscape.

Review of InfoRapid Knowledge Base Builder

This is an unusual program, it has its own style of map and it has many very useful features.  The only drawback with Knowledge Base Builder is the fact that the program is so slow and unresponsive.  It is about as lively as a sloth on Valium, bear in mind that this test was done on a Desktop quad core 64 bit gaming machine with 6 Gb of RAM and a good graphics card.  It should not be this slow.  Other programs like MyInfo or VUE respond like lightning on the same machine even (in the case of MyInfo) when they are looking after thousands of notes.

However the program has many good features.  The main focus of the program is as a tool for the world wide web, it can be used to create a map of a website with each page appearing as a node and the links between pages appearing as links between nodes.  As a demonstration of the program Ingo Straub Software have an interactive map of Wikipedia taken from the Wikipedia website.  This map is much more responsive than the desktop program (??) and is a very useful in its own right.  The entries are in plain text but if you click on the W icon then the page from Wikipedia is rendered as it appears on the website.  The demo starts off at the a random Wikipedia entry, always the same entry but different for different computers.  This is not a problem, just type the item you are looking for into the search box and away you go.  This site is incredibly useful as it provides an entirely new way of looking at Wikipedia and seeing the relationships between entries.  It is worth bookmarking the site even if you have no interest in the software.

The program stores its maps in a file and so you have to explicitly save the map before exiting the program.  Any files or thumbnails of files or web pages are stored along with the map so the file can become very large very quickly.  But this does mean that the file can be moved to another computer and all the thumbnails will still be there.

This is not open source software, it is free for personal use but if you use it in a commercial setting you have to buy it at 99 Euros (how would they know?), there are some other programs available on the website with the same licensing arrangements.  I have not checked these out yet.

 

Overall score = 19 out of 50

 

1. Organisation  =  5

This program is not limited to a strict hierarchy, any node may be connected to any other node so it is suitable for concept maps as well as mind mapping.  The layout of the map is entirely controlled by the program itself, there is no manual positioning of nodes but the program usually makes good choices about the layout.  The good thing is that when you select a node it becomes the centre of the map and the rest of the map gets re-arranged around it.  This means that you can have an enormous map and it does not become unusable or confusing because you only see the part you are interested in at the time.  There are very few mapping programs which have this feature.

Links can have types but you cannot split or join links.

It is possible although awkward to have more than one map in the same file.  You would just need two groups of nodes which have no connections between them, because the program controls the display itself and shows related nodes one map is displayed and the other disappears, if you manage to switch to the other map then the first map disappears.  Floating nodes (not attached to any other node) will also disappear.

There is a zoom control on the right hand side of the map but be warned the screen re-draw rate is painfully slow, even with a very small map.

 

2. Attachments  =  3

The things which can be attached to nodes are not terribly useful.  The main aim of this program is to make a representation of parts of the web and it does this very well, what it does not do so well is linking to local files.

Each node has a description field which can hold very large texts, but this is less useful than it sounds because the text pops up in a small box when you mouse over the node.  When moving your mouse off the node towards the box it often disappears before mouse is over the box.  If it has not disappeared then you can scroll through the text.  The box also contains any picture attached to the node and a link button.  The link button can point to a file from the programs repository or a URL.  This program does not support universal links.

The link box cannot point to a file on your local file system.  Any files you need to link to must first be copied into a repository by the program.  If you try to link to a file then you will be presented with a list of the files in the repository.  Many of the files are not the original files but a ‘thumbnail’ or screen shot of what the file would look like if it were to be opened.  I have not found a way to open the original file from the link field.

If the link field points to a URL then there is a picture of the webpage next to the link field.  This gives you a thumbnail or preview of the contents of the web page.  Nodes connected to a web page have a small white arrow in the top left hand corner, clicking on this arrow opens the web page but it is not opened in your browser but in the program itself, the main window becomes the browser.

 

3. Appearance  =  5

The appearance of this program is quite attractive with a semi 3D look.  Nodes cannot be positioned manually but the program itself usually lays things out fairly well.

InfoRapid
The unusual thing about this program is that when you select a node the map is re-drawn with the selected node as the centre of the map.  There are very few mapping programs which do this.  MindRaider and Cayra are the only free ones which I can recall at the moment.  Cayra was abandoned by its developer and a later update to Microsoft’s .NET library broke the program.  It is still available here (at the time of writing) but be warned it doesn’t work.  MindRaider is still current at the time of writing.

There are four panels at the side of the screen which contain an outline view of the map, a list of files in the repository, details of the relationships between nodes and various details about the selected node.  These panels can be folded away to get a better view of the map if desired.

 

4. Ease of use  =  1

The speed of response of this program is painfully slow.

The way the program is designed is cumbersome, you are constantly swapping between the mouse and keyboard.  This is not the program you need if you want to jot down notes quickly.  Using this program is hard work.

It is not possible to move around the map using just the keyboard, you have to use the mouse.  The idiosyncratic way it links to files, the constant swapping between keyboard and mouse and the clumsy way the data is entered makes this program tedious and awkward to use.

 

5. Import – Export  =  5

This program is focused on the web and so these is an option to map a web page, this will scan a website and build a map with each web page represented as a node and each link on that page mapped to a link to another node which represents another page.  What you end up with is a graphical map of the website which is quite useful.  Text extracted from the web pages is put in the description field and the title of the page is the title of the node, also the links all have descriptions copied from the text displayed on the web page for that link.  Before you map a website you can specify the maximum number of web pages to scan, the maximum depth of link levels, maximum number of links per page, timeout and several other parameters.  This is useful because otherwise you might end up with a map of the whole world wide web.  This program does a very good job of mapping a website.

This program can build a map from an XML dump produced from a MediaWiki site.  It can also import .CSV, .RDF, .OWL, .XMI, .XSD and .GED files, presumably they have to be in the correct format to produce a sensible map.  I have not tried these import options except for the MediaWiki XML dump which works well.

The map may be exported as a .CSV file, an image file (literally just a picture of the map) or as a web database.

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.

Compendium

 

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.