Tag Archives: PersonalBrain

Disappointed, But Looking

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Back in early 1987 I was lured into a store on the Tottenham Court Road by a window display of computers. And I’ve been disappointed ever since.

Well, actually they were called Word Processors. Made by a company called Amstrad which to my ear sounded impressive, a railroad-meets-violin mix of Amtrak and Stradivarius.(I only found out later it’s short for Alan Michael Sugar Trading, which isn’t quite as impressive.)

Anyway, I was working on a history thesis at the time, and as I glanced in the window thought I saw the potential of a computer to help me. That in itself was smart. But my mistake was—and remains—the notion that somehow I could bend the computer to my will.

I can’t. And it won’t. Or rather, we users are always hostage to the guy who writes the software that runs on the computer. A computer has to compute something, after all, and it computes what the software tells it to.

I guess I didn’t realize this when I asked the guy in the shop to tell me what the Amstrad PCW8512 did. I was collecting historical data on Thailand and Vietnam in the 1960s at the time and my tutor had taught me the importance of getting things in the right chronological order. (Simple advice: You’d be amazed how many historians don’t bother with such niceties.)

So would the PCW8512 help me do that?

“It lets you write letters,” the assistant said.

That sounds good, I replied, but would it, for example, create a table that let me put in dates and big slices of text and sort them?

“It has 512 kilobytes of RAM,” he said. “And two floppy disk drives.”

I’ll take it, I said.

And I’ve been unhappy ever since.

This is the problem, you see. We don’t buy what we need, we buy what’s available. I couldn’t then, and I still can’t, get a computer to do the things I want to do, I have to do what it wants me to do.

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we want to do. No one went around saying I’d love to be able to swish, pinch and shake my device but when the iPhone came along everyone decided that was what they wanted to do. Nobody said “I want a device a bit smaller than a drinks tray that mesmerizes me on the couch so I forget who I’m married to and to feed the kids”, but doubtless the iPad will dazzle both users and Wall Street.

But heaven help you if you have a specific problem you want your computer to fix.

I remember when, four years after my Amstrad experience, I decided to buy a computer running Windows. I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson. I asked the guy in the shop to show me how to organize the windows in a specific way and keep them that way for the next time I used the computer. He looked at me as if I was mad.

“It has a 20-megabyte hard-drive,” he said.

I’ll take it, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of great programs out there. I love PersonalBrain for finding connections between ideas, people and things, and Liquid Story Binder is great for writing books. Evernote is great for saving stuff. ConnectedText is useful as a sort of personal database with cross-referencing. But they are all someone else’s idea of how to work. Not mine.

They don’t say to me: Tell me how you work, and how you want to work, and I’ll make the computer do it for you.

I have a vision of a computer, for example, that will let me throw anything at it and it will know what to do with it. This has a date on it, and some key words I recognize, so it needs to be added to a chronology, unless it’s in the future in which case it’s probably for the calendar.

In my wildest dreams I imagine a computer that just lets me start drawing on the screen and the computer can figure out I’m drawing a table. That what I put in there is text, but also drawings, calculations, images. Software, in short, that does what I want it to do, rather than what it thinks I should do.

That, in short, was my mistake on the Tottenham Court Road. I thought that thing I saw in the window was an intelligence, a thing that make me more productive at how I was already working, or wanted to work,

Turns out I was wrong. Turns out it was just a souped-up typewriter. Turns out that unless we all become programmers, we’ll never actually bend computers to our will.

And, yes, 23 years on, I still haven’t found a program that lets me add, sort and filter chronologies easily. I’m still looking though. Disappointed, but looking.

Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

Google Talk as a Contact Database

image 

(This is a shorter version of a longer post at my sister blog, ten minut.es, which take a 10 minute look at new and old products, services and websites.)

One of the most undersung corners of the Google empire, in my view, is Google Talk, the search giant’s chat application (non Windows users can launch its gadget browser version.)

For one thing, it’s so uncluttered it makes every other chat application look like the aftermath of Christmas dinner. It’s smooth, fast and the sound quality is good. But what I think it’s best for are the features that aren’t really features. (Most of these won’t be useful if you don’t use Gmail.)

For example, searching for a contact’s email address is faster in GTalk than other applications I can find. Outlook is so slow it’s horrible and Google Desktop won’t really help you since the email address you’re looking for, if it appears at all, will be via an email address or something, even if you’ve set Google Desktop to index your contacts:

image

Google Talk does this much better. So long as you’ve selected the Add people I communicate with often to my Friends List (Settings/General)

image

GoogleTalk will add these names to its list, so that when you start typing their name in the search line their names will appear below, even if they’re not a Google Talk user:

image

Move your mouse over one of the entries and their contact details will appear:

image

Clicking on the email address (in blue) will either create a new message in Gmail or a new message in your default email client, depending on whether you’ve selected Open Gmail when I click on email links or not in your Settings:

image

Now you have a quick way of scouring your contact book and creating emails. It’s possibly only marginally quicker than clicking on Compose Mail in Gmail, but I find Google Talk so fast it works well for me.

I feel Google could go further with this. What I’d love is if it could include in its search not just names but towns and other fields stored in your Gmail contact database. If I could quickly trawl through all my Gmail contacts for specific interests (who should I chat to about satellites and medical emergencies, for example) Google Talk would become a sort of first stop for organising my otherwise untamable contact list. (At the moment the best solution for this is my old favorite, PersonalBrain, which I’ve written about before.)

It’s not perfect, by any means. The built-in Chat within Gmail seems to have features that aren’t replicated in Google Talk, which would make this a better tool. Allowing you to include your AIM contacts inside Chat is one (unless I’m much mistaken this won’t work in Google Talk). The other is that when you add extra detail to your address book in Gmail — adding a photo, say — this information appears nicely inside the Gmail Chat:

image

but not in Google Talk:

image

I’d like to see Google improve on this.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Overloading a Brain

I’ve written too much of late about PersonalBrain, so I’m not going to do so anymore — at least here. Instead I’ve started a Google Group for those of us interested in exploring how to use the tool, but not necessarily so excited about it we want to follow all its ins and outs. For such folk there are the PersonalBrain forums and newsgroups.  

For now you need to sign up to join. If you’re new to PersonalBrain, or wondering about it, or are a user happy to share your experiences, please join. This is a non-technical group, and the emphasis is on usage rather than bugs, feature requests etc.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Working in the Brain I

I know I’ve written a lot about PersonalBrain of late, and I apologize for that if it doesn’t interest you. But partly in response to comments on an earlier post, and partly just because I think it might help, I wanted to give an example of how I use the program, in the hope it might inspire some of you to try it out, or at least to keep going if you’re trying and struggling to adapt the software to your daily life.

To me PersonalBrain is a place to dump what you know so that a) you’ll remember what it is you know and b) find a place for it amidst all the other stuff you know. You may not remember everything you know, but if you have it some place you can reach, you stand a better chance of recalling it when you need it. PersonalBrain helps you do this, and helps you link it to the other stuff you know, in ways that may surprise you.

This evening I watched a National Geographic special (yeah, another wild night chez moi) on the Lake Toba supervolcano eruption of 70,000 years ago, which may or may not have plunged the planet into a 1,000 year ice-age. I realized while watching it that I’d seen it before, but had pretty much forgotten all about it. A perfect example of how to use PersonalBrain, I figured. So this is how I did it:

First I looked for anything that was already in my brain that was volcano-related. This is what I found:

pbuse1

A thought on Tracking volcanoes — not directly relevant, but enough for me to start working backwards. This is one of the beauties of PersonalBrain — you can start anywhere, building hierarchies in reverse order, or sub-branches (what are called children) or jumps — links that aren’t necessarily direct, but ones you think may prove useful in the long run. So an obvious parent (the next level up the hierarchy) here would be Volcanoes (another could be Tracking stuff).

So I add that, as the  base for the child I want to add on the Toba eruption. But before adding the Toba link, I start to think what Volcanoes may itself be a child of. Disasters seems an obvious one, so I add that. PB, though, is a step ahead of me, since it turns out I already have a thought of that name:

image

So I try linking to that. It seems likely it’ll be relevant, and it is. Disasters already has as children things like Earthquakes and Tsunami. Earthquakes makes an obvious fit:

pbuse2

Of course, if I’d been more on the ball when I originally added the Disasters thought I could have added the Volcanoes thought at the same time. But that’s the beauty of PB: It doesn’t really matter. It’s not about thinking — a la brainstorming and mindmaps — as about adding stuff when it occurs to you. The skill is in ensuring the names of your thoughts are helpful to you, so the hierarchy and connections emerge naturally as you add material.

So now all I have to do is add the Toba thought and enough links and material so it means something to me later. This is easy enough: A Google search of Toba supervolcano throws up a feast of interesting links. I throw them quickly as attachments into a thought (they could as easily be separate thoughts; doesn’t really matter). I also copy the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article into the notes section:

image

And, just to be cute (and to make the thought stand out) I copy an image of the area as a thought icon:

image

Sounds fiddly? Actually all of this takes less than two minutes.

Finally, if you have time, it’s worth adding a few extra links to what you’ve created, which will really tap into the power of PersonalBrain. Lake Toba is in Indonesia so I should add it to an Indonesia-related thought. I decided to create one called Indonesian history which I then made a child of Indonesia. (Probably could be better, but we can fix it later. Because a child in PB can have multiple parents, it doesn’t really matter.)

I could add more parents or jumps (Possible weekend destinations? Human evolution? Bad things that may happen again? Ring of Fire?), but if they don’t jump to mind at the time, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is there is now something in my brain as a marker for this new cluster of information, this nugget, this little bit of knowledge, and it’s been connected to its natural cousins. Now I know I will find it again, and, as importantly, I will find it even if I’m not looking exactly for Toba and volcanoes.

Not everyone is going to want to rush to their computer every time they watch a documentary or read a book. But if you’re anything like me, frustrated that so much of what I see, read and hear gets lost and only half-remembered, and that my brain rarely makes the connections to other things I’m half remembering, PB is a powerful aid to retaining, inspiring and making those links. And, most importantly, it’s fast and simple.

Brain Withdrawal

I’m really getting into using PersonalBrain, the newly launched version of a decade-old program that should have swept the world by now. But there’s a downside to relying on one piece of software so much: When it goes wrong, you’re adrift.

Luckily the guys at PersonalBrain are looking into it, but I had to stop using mine about 24 hours ago when I noticed weird things happening. My brain is now on their operating table and I’m praying I’ll get it back soon because I just have no appetite to do anything meaningful without it.

PersonalBrain fills that hole I’ve often felt existed between having ideas, finding snippets of information or encountering websites, companies, people and books I encounter in my day. Before I would not know quite where to put them so I could find them when I needed them, and invented dozens of systems to try to solve the problem. None worked very well, because they all relied on me remembering what I’d added and where.

As you may have found, most of what we know doesn’t fit neatly into a structure — that PR guy we met last night? Should we put him under PR, or the companies he handles, or the fact that actually he was much more interesting on credit card fraud, and he could definitely be lured out on a date with one of the legions of single females we seem to know?

And what about that idea you had in the bath this morning, where you wondered aloud whether the plethora of news stories on global warming was evidence of a) a sudden increase in global warming, b) a sudden increase in journalists’ interest in global warming, c) a sudden increase in editorial commitment to educate the public about global warming d) a pathetic hope on the part of editors that global warming stories may sell more papers or e) a sort of new tacit agreement between media and public that now we all agree that climate change is happening, we need to be reminded of how clever we are? If you’re not sure, where are you going to put that in your database? Future media? Future of newspapers? Cynical ploys? Global warming? Great ideas you have in the bath that don’t sound so great when you’re not?

The answer: with PersonalBrain you can put it anywhere, and, more importantly, have a higher chance of finding it again. Quickly PB envelopes your processes and shifts them into a different gear. Which is why it’s sooooo hard to function when your file gets corrupted and needs to go in for surgery. (Yes, it’s worrying that software can do this, but we should have gotten used to it by now. I’d much rather there was software that wasn’t perfect but which reached for the stars than some more basic mush that always worked but never transformed how I worked.)

So. I’m brainless, gormless, mindless, whatever you want to call it until the doctors call. Next time I’m going to back up my brain every hour and hope this doesn’t happen again. But I’m excited, too, that I care enough about a piece of software and how it can help me that I feel so bereft. I haven’t felt like this since Enfish Tracker Pro.

Update: An all nighter by the PersonalBrain people and my brain is back, fixed and missing half a dozen thoughts (out of 7,000). I’ve been assured the problem is being investigated and future versions of the software will include an automatic backup option each time the program is closed.

Extending Your Brainpower

This Software ‘Thinks’ Just Like You, But Makes Connections You Had Missed

WSJ Online June 22, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

So what is it, and what does it do? Well, if you’ve ever created a so-called mind-map — a brainstorming technique that creates a burst of thoughts from one central idea or topic — you’ll notice the similarities. Ideas branch out from the center, organizing your thoughts in hierarchies. PersonalBrain, however, is less interested in building hierarchies, and more interested in mimicking the way the brain works. You nominate whatever is uppermost in your mind, and it rearranges things to illustrate the connections that thought has with other ideas in your head. Think less about branches, more about a freeform spiderweb.

PersonalBrain’s screen appearance hasn’t changed much since 1998, and it still looks contemporary. You’d be hard pressed to say that about any other software program. First impressions are positive. It looks good when you launch it, with its navy blue background and spinning central wheel and its spiderweb of links. Once you’ve got the hang of dragging little circles around a word, you get the idea of adding more threads to the web. Click on a word and it jumps to the center, the web of other words and links rearranging themselves around it.

It’s about now that new users tend to flounder a little. Certainly I did: I couldn’t immediately grasp the idea that PersonalBrain is less about getting a bird’s eye view of a subject — there are plenty of tools for that, like MindManager, or TopicScape 3D — than about helping you build and find connections between things you’re interested in. Italian consultant to the Italian police Roberto Capodieci (www.excomputer.net) uses it for tracking the connections among members of a criminal network, while British science historian James Burke uses it to track the links between history’s great inventors.

Now there’s nothing particularly magical in this. It’s not as if PersonalBrain is doing the linking for you. You have to build the links yourself. But remembering all the connections is something else. That’s where PersonalBrain comes in. Bali-based Mr. Capodieci, for example, adds a few basic terms (what the software calls thoughts) as categories — suspects, locations, criminal activities, phone records, etc. For each suspect, he adds a thought. Under locations, he adds places he is surveying — bars, restaurants, clubs — and then under criminal activities adds prostitution, drug dealing, robberies, etc. The next step is to start linking the suspects to the locations and to the activities. Pretty soon it is clear that two suspects in the same bar engaged in the same kind of activity are likely to know each other. Those frequenting more than one bar might be the links between two groups of suspects. Then he adds the suspects’ phone-call records, further linking them together and building a picture of the gangs he is dealing with.

Now your work or interests may not stretch to Soprano-like family trees. (Mr. Capodieci says he began using PersonalBrain when he found it installed on a hacker’s computer: the hacker was using it to store information about employees at a company to improve his efforts at engineering a scam.) But whatever your interest, however smart you are and however good a memory you have, you’re unlikely to be able to make and remember all these kinds of connections — especially over years. One longtime user, U.S.-based technology consultant Jerry Michalksi, has more than 60,000 so-called thoughts in his PersonalBrain, covering everything he has collected in 10 years.

While the new version dovetails better with Microsoft Outlook and has several important new features, it doesn’t feel quite as attractive as its predecessor. Nonetheless, after a few unsuccessful attempts I finally got going with it a few months ago, and now I can’t leave it alone. Pretty much every idea I have (admittedly not many), every Web site I like, every contact I’ve made ends up in my PersonalBrain, linked together by topic (such as “Web sites promoting good shaving practice”), or place, or friends in common, or temporary categories (such as “What I need to work on next”). While other tools would balk at trying to relate one item to more than a handful of others, PersonalBrain positively cries out for it.

Even after three months I’m only scratching the surface with about 4,000 thoughts. I’m also discovering connections that wouldn’t have occurred to me — and finding, lurking there in my PersonalBrain things I’d already forgotten I knew. As its creator, Harlan Hugh, said recently: “It’s like anything that’s truly new; you’re not going to be an instant expert, but we think it’s easy enough to see the benefits.”

I can’t guarantee PersonalBrain will help you sleep better. But if you persevere, I feel sure it will grab you as much as it has grabbed me.

Getting My Brain Around PersonalBrain

pb1

 This week’s column for The Wall Street Journal (subscription only) is about PersonalBrain, a topic I find hard to write about:

Here’s a heads-up on some organizing software that may take some getting used to. Frankly, it’s taken me nearly 10 years to appreciate its power. But now that I do, it has become something of an obsession. I even have dreams about it.

It’s a defiantly different kind of thought-mapping program called PersonalBrain, and a new version (including versions for Mac and Linux users) will be launched next month by U.S.-based TheBrain Technologies LP. Users include scientists, soldiers, inventors and others who have used it to marshal their collections of thoughts, projects and even databases on criminal syndicates. I find it so useful and absorbing, there’s nothing — be it a Web site link, a random idea, a contact, a document, a scrap of information — that I don’t add to its spider-web-like screen, knowing it will throw up links my brain had never considered or had failed to remember.

 I love the program with the passion of the newly converted but often feel I’m not getting the most out of it. I also feel a failure in my efforts to convert friends to its power. It’s almost painful to see them writhing with information that would reveal so much to them if they spent a bit of time getting their brains around PersonalBrain.

What tipped it for me? I think it was when I stopped trying to use it like a mind map and just trusted it enough to throw things in there and not bother too much. With PersonalBrain there’s no right or wrong way to use the thing, and its tendency is to startle with surprising connections, rather than build a perfectly formed tree of connections. It thrives on connections, so the other lesson is that adding links is good. It’s not, as like mind mapping, a sign of a confused mind, but a recognition that creativity and association is born out of the seeming chaos of our brains. Or something.

Technorati Tags: , ,