Getting More Out of My Brain

Regular readers will know I love mind maps, and more or less anything that works harder with my information. I use MyInfo as my outliner, I use MindManager to organize my thoughts, but I’ve only ever dabbled with other programs that I feel could do a lot more for me than they do: 3D Topicscape, Axon, NoteStudio, EverNote, TiddlyWiki and PersonalBrain.

All of these are worth a look, if you like experimenting with storing your information differently. Topicscape lets you fly through your data, and it works remarkably well. Axon is a very freeform but powerful idea organizer, NoteStudio and TiddlyWiki are personal wikis — think web-type links but in the comfort of your own home. EverNote is a huge toilet roll of stuff you can save from anywhere.

The last one, PersonalBrain, has always been very seductive, because it looks so darn good. It just feels like it should be something I use a lot. Plus, people I admire like Jerry Michalski use it, and love it. If someone like him uses it, surely I can get something out of it?

But as people smarter than me have said: PersonalBrain seems to be a tool waiting for a purpose. But what? If one treats the brain as a hierarchy, then quickly one gets frustrated. I know a few people use it as a file manager, and that makes sense — easier to jump to other subfolders that are close by, but not in the same folder — but so far I’ve only found one really good use for it: Contacts.

I don’t know a huge number of people but they’re now spread out all over the world and staying in touch with them has become something of a lottery. Sometimes I get to see them when I’m nearby, but more often than not it’s only when I’ve got back home do I realise that I was near where they were, and we didn’t hook up. PersonalBrain works best when nodes, ideas, or whatever it is you’re storing, have more than one connection, either up (Bloke X lives in NY but also works for company Y) or sideways (he used to live in Singapore, and used to work for company Z).

This lets me see the connections between my friends by which group of people in my world they’re connected to, but also lets me see them organised by company, or whatever. It may sound daft but I’m now doing a better job of staying in touch. And even reestablishing contact with folk I haven’t seen for a decade or so. PersonalBrain has to be thanked for that (tip: you can drag names from Outlook into PersonalBrain which speeds up the process; doubleclick on their names in the Brain and they’ll load in Outlook.)

Now I’m trying to find other ways to use the software. The fact that we haven’t found out what needs these programs fulfil may, I surmise, be because we haven’t been thinking hard enough.

Foiling EMI

Further to my rant yesterday about digital rights management, my friend Mark tells me that getting around the Coldplay X&Y copy protection is easy — just rip it on a Mac. He’s right, at least for me: Works like a dream, after no joy at all on two ThinkPads.

This may not be true with all copies of the CD. I bought mine in Hong Kong in 2005, although it appears to be imported from Europe. A piece on ConsumerAffairs says the “CD’s restrictions also prevent it from being played or copied on Macintosh PCs.” Some folk reported problems playing it on their Macs.

Hopefully this idiocy will not last much longer. Boing Boing reported a couple of weeks ago that EMI was apparently ending copy protection on new CDs, although I’ve not seen anything since. If this is true, I suggest we all send our Coldplay and other copy protected CDs back to EMI and demand copies without DRM on them.

The Death of DRM, the Rise of Patrons

Forget being a big old mass music consumer. Become a Patron of the Arts.

The IHT’s Victoria Shannon chronicles the last few gasps of life in Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music, saying that “With the falloff in CD sales persisting and even digital revenue growth now faltering in the face of rampant music sharing by consumers, the major record labels appear to be closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions.” This has the inevitability of death about it (this morning I tried again to rip my DRM-crippled Coldplay CD of X&Y, unsuccessfully) which makes me wonder: What will follow?

Most thoughts seem to be on the free music, supported by advertising, and largely distributed as promotion for expensive live concerts:

Jacques Attali, the French economist … who forecast in his newest book that all recorded music would be free in the next several decades — consumers will instead pay for live performances, he predicted — said the business model of digital music should reflect the old radio model: free online music supported by advertising.

“A lot of people will still make money out of it,” he said during an interview at Midem.

I think this shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how music has fractured. My sense is that while Britney Spears will continue to exist in the Celebrity for Celebrity’s Sake World, music has already spread via MySpace etc into much smaller, more diverse niches. I’m not saying anything sparkingly new here, but given that most articles about the majors and DRM and online file sharing focus on the big numbers, I would have thought a much more interesting model to look at is that on places like eMusic, of which I’ve been a subscriber since 2002.

What happens for me is this: I find an artist I like by searching through what neighbors are selecting for me, like this balloon on my login page:

And then I’ll follow my nose until I find something I like. Or I’ll listen to Last.fm until I hear something I really like and then see if it’s up on eMusic. This is all pretty obvious, and I’m sure lots of people do this, and probably more, already. But what I think this leads to is a kind of artistic patronage where we consumers see it in our interests to support those musicians we love.

In my case, for example, if I really like the stuff of one artist I’ll try to contact them and tell them so: No one so far has refused to write back and hasn’t sounded appreciative to hear from a fan. Examples of this are Thom Brennan and Tim Story, whose music I find a suitable accompaniment to anything, from jogging to taking night bus rides to Chiangmai in the rain. I’m summoning up the courage to contact my long time hero, David Sylvian, who doesn’t have a direct email address.

Of course, nowadays one can view their MySpace page, or join an email newletter, and build links up there. But my point is this: My relationship with these musicians is much more along traditional lines of someone who will support their artistic output through financial support — buying their music in their hope that it will help them produce more.

Surely the Internet has taught us one very useful lesson in the past year: That it’s well-suited to help us find what we want, even if can’t define well what it is. First step was Google, which helped us find what we wanted if we knew some keywords about it. Next step: a less specific wander, a browse in the old sense, that helps us stumble upon that which we know we’ll want when we find it.

When Services Go Pro, Reach for Your Gun

Alarming and confusing news and views concerning Skype’s announcement of its new pricing strategy. Here’s a summary.

Key elements trumpeted in Skype’s press release (the most detailed information is here, courtesy of SkypeJournal):

  • Premium subscription package called Skype Pro, which includes free Skype Voicemail (€15 previously) and €30 off a SkypeIn number (previously €30). Cost: €2 per month
  • Removes per minute charges for SkypeOut calls (i.e. calls to ordinary phones) so long as they’re landlines and to the same country you’re in at the time of calling. I.e: unlimited calling, so long as it’s not to mobile phones.
  • Every SkypeOut (and I think SkypeIn) call, whether it’s to voicemail or not, incurs a separate connection fee of 0.039 Euro, excl VAT (5 U.S. cents). (This does not apply to existing unlimited calling plans if you’re calling within your specific country.)
  • Some SkypeOut destinations have been reduced (about seven, including Malaysia) for Skype Pro users to the Global Rate of 1.7 cents per minute).

Skype claims this option “offers our users more for less because they can buy additional Skype paid for products but for a smaller cost”. The service will be phased in from now in Europe, and, for now, will be available alongside the traditional service. (For Asian readers, Hong kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia are next.)

What does this mean for you? Well, of course it depends on what kind of user you are, and where you’re calling.

  • You’re going to be paying more per call than you were before, because of the connection fee.
  • If you’re an international caller, it’s going to be harder to calculate your potential savings/losses. I must confess I’m still trying to figure this out.
  • Jean Mercier, based in Belgium, has done some sums on his calling habits, and concludes that “occasional SkypeOut users will pay for the heavy SkypeOut users”. In other words, if you don’t use it a lot, you’ll end up paying more than you would before. HIs conclusion: “I really am astounded, and not in a positive way!”
  • Olga Kharif at BusinessWeek says it’s part of general raising of VOIP rates. “Sure, they need to find a way to make money. But I think raising prices is a big mistake. In the past, users switched to VoIP because it was the cheapest calling option around. When it’s no longer that, customers might no longer hurry to abandon their traditional telecom services providers for upstarts.”
  • Phil Wolff of SkypeJournal says you’ll be better off if you SkypeOut an average 4.3 minutes per day, or a couple of hours per month. This does not seem to include the connection fee in the calculation, however, and may not be relevant for international calls. I’m checking this with Phil.
  • For Paul Kapustka of GigaOM, the reasons behind the move are simple: Skype is in trouble. “Just add some cash to the bottom line, quickly! For customers, the question is — do you want eBay to be your phone company?”
  • PhoneBoy says that “what they are really doing is raising the price”.

My conclusions: Skype has been a revolution for a lot of my readers and friends who aren’t usually all that enamoured of technology. They’ve bought a headset, got a cable connection, installed the software, bought some credits, all because of the savings Skype offers. Many of them also enjoy the benefits of being online in a buddy list.

But what if Skype is no longer the cheapest option? Or if they feel they’re being lied to by press releases that are less than forthcoming about the real deal? Will they turn their newfound confidence in technology to switch to something cheaper and take all their buddies with them?

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Put My Book in Your Toilet

John Graham-Cumming, the father of the excellent Bayesian spam killer POPFile, has written a review of my column collection, Loose Wire. It’s a fun read (the review, not the book, although the book is. Really.) He even adds a word to my lexicon:

‘wagstaff (v): to poke any new technology with a long stick, make sure it does what it says on the box, and summarize the experience in less than 2,000 words’.

John concludes that the book “should be in the toilet. In fact, I think it’s such a good book for reading in small doses in a small, quiet room, that a global band of Gideons-like technology evangelists should be leaving copies in the smallest room in the house of any technophile.” Excellent idea. I’ll get onto my publisher about that.

Get the New Fear, Same as the Old Fear

It’s early January, the first post of the year and already I’m feeling a bit weary of Web 2.0 and blogging. My ennui is really fear: fear that journalists don’t get blogging, that bloggers don’t get journalism, and that all of us are covering something that isn’t half as exciting as it was looked a year or so ago.

First off, the sense the that Web 2.0 isn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. Word is out that more dot.coms are hitting the dust, or at least sniffing it: TechCrunch and VentureBeat both have something to say on the subject. My sense? Amidst all the money, the cute (and samey) logos and cute (and samey) names, we’ve kind of forgotten what Web 2.0 is about. It’s about doing things that make sense online, not doing things online for the sake of it.

But then there’s the bigger worry, at least for me: is my job about to be taken over by bloggers who can’t write and have PR cards up their sleeve? Nick Carr thinks so, laying in less than subtly to Andy Abramson, pointing to what he says is poor grammar, sloppy spelling and half-baked sentences masquerading as New Journalism. I declare an interest here: I know and personally like Andy, so I’m not going to join in what is to me in any case a tad too personal. Suffice to say that we need this year to get sorted out the ethics of being a blogger before we a) start calling blogging journalism and b) start seriously alienating both reader and traditional journalist. My rule of thumb is: If you’re hawking something other than the objective unvarnished truth, declare it and leave the building. Let’s not muddy the waters further.

Finally, let’s not confuse being nice with being honest and being straightforward. I count Steve Rubel among those I personally like in this terrain, but it shouldn’t stop me saying what I think. Steve makes a strong argument in favor of ignoring ‘mean people’; he’s struck dozens of ‘mean-spirited blogs’ off his reader list this year. Steve is of course free to do what he likes and read who he likes. And I am certainly not crazy about some of the pettiness and personal attacks that the technorati blogosphere seems to mistake for trenchant writing of late. But here’s my suggestion for Steve and others: be careful to distinguish snark from critical writing. The two aren’t always the same. Sometimes there’s stuff we don’t like to read but we should.

My new year’s resolution is to try to keep remembering that the only person we should be writing for is the person who wants to know the truth, and wants to know that we don’t carry any extra baggage — either for or against the subject — when we write it. Have a good year.