Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Personal Brain

First, my thanks to Stan Hoffman for bringing this most interesting piece of software to my attention. Personal Brain is produced by The Brain , and is their personal/home office offering. It runs on both Mac OS X and Windows, and combines mind mapping with document organization. The basic version, which does mind mapping but does not allow you to store attachments, is free. This is amazingly generous, because it is a beautiful and extremely useful piece of software. The Core version, which allows you to attach files and folders to your "thoughts", and has a host of other features is $US149.95. The Pro version, with yet more features and the right to run the software on 2 machines, is $US249.95. See the FAQ for the full description. There is a 30 day demo version, and I am currently running it on my Mac Book Pro and on my office Windows XP laptop.

When I first loaded this software, I was pretty sure that I would buy it before the end of the trial, but after a month I'm afraid it has not managed to win me over. I don't think that that reflects any problems with the software - it's a great product - but says more about the way I work. I've used mind mapping techniques for years, having learned them from Tony Buzan's books. If you haven't seen these, look for either "How to Mind Map" or "The Mind Map Book" as a starting point; or for instant gratification, go to James Cook University's JCU Study Skills Online. I believe I've said this before: if you don't "get" mind mapping on paper, I don't think you will like it in software. Try a low tech, paper and pencil, approach before investing in software. I find mind maps useful for some things, such as helping me memorize large chunks of theory for exams, or for organizing disparate bits of information if I'm writing something complicated, like an operations manual. But I don't find the technique useful for day-to-day life.

Furthermore, when I draw a mind map it always has little pictures and symbols, not just boxes. Buzan recommends the use of colour and pictures, and I'm used to working that way, so I find Personal Brain a bit limiting: you can't draw in it in the way you can in Curio.

Other problems: Personal Brain can only index the contents of documents if it imports them, and on import it moves the document into a subdirectory in its own directory. It doesn't change the name or format of the document, but it does relocate it, which means that the only simple way to access the document henceforth is through Personal Brain. Personal Brain's directory structure is part of its internal organization, and not intended to be accessed by humans:

Which is going to annoy me, it's another layer of abstraction I can do without. EagleFiler works for me because, while the contents are held in a dedicated directory structure, the structure uses my folder names as directory names, so I can browse it raw on the disk if I need to; this also means that I can easily access the files for use in Curio (of which more, later). Personal Brain can't index Open Office documents - it's a PC application that has been ported to Mac, and while the port is good (it seems faster on the Mac than on a Windows machine), the heritage shows a bit.

And worst of all: no workflow. No way to save documents from the web directly to the Brain, everything has to be saved to disk and imported or linked to the Brain. Personal Brain is not meant to be a litter sorter, so the developers have not included any workflow for litter "collection".

I like Personal Brain. But I can't find a place for it in my working life. Your mileage may vary: I can commend the product for stability on both platforms, and it's certainly worth a look.

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