My new software favorite: Personal Brain (updated)

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What is my purpose on Earth? Raising my children? Being as good and supportive a husband to my wife as (the movie version of) Paul Child was to Julia in the new film? Working for world peace and sustainable environmental development and a more humane society? Helping keep my magazine afloat?

Yeah yeah yeah.

I often think that my real purpose, apart from dreaming about getting back into aviation and  tennis (and, gulp, finishing the next book), is to tinker with every piece of "interesting" software that anyone can cook up. I've written about dozens of them over the years, and still have many of them at close reach on my computer. Lotus Agenda -- the "spreadsheet for words" that was invented in the early 1990s, then cruelly orphaned by Lotus, but is still handy now. BrainStorm -- an outlining and list- based program. It is ultra-minimalist, text only, straight from the DOS age -- but after Symantec's also-tragic orphaning of the best-loved-ever outliner, GrandView, BrainStorm is often the place I turn. (Part of that bittersweet outliner history, from Dave Winer, here.) And of course Zoot, which I have used since the early 1990s and wrote about in the Atlantic 12 years ago. For all its info-organizing power, Zoot has in the past few years begun showing its age. Like BrainStorm, it is text-only and has no way even to underline or highlight important text. Also, it is too Web-friendly.  But its lone-genius creator, Tom Davis of Delray Beach, FL, has been working on an all new, web-connected version, which is now in beta testing and which I'll sign up for as soon as it's released.

But for the moment: Personal Brain, from TheBrain software in Marina del Rey, California. I'm in that familiar and always-enjoyable phase of feeling: this program is really interesting, and let's see how it fits the way I think and work.

The idea of the program is to connect any item -- a call you want to make, a web site you want to quote, a PDF file you want to read, or even an entire project you're beginning -- with any other, in a flexible variety of relationships. FWIW, the program calls its items "thoughts." Here's an idea of how some of the connections look, in a view that shows many projects for which I'm collecting info or am working on.

BrainScreen3.jpg


Here is an idea of how that can look with another level of links in the network of connections made visible:

BrainScreen4.jpg

I'll save for later installments a few practical illustrations of how and why I use the program. For the moment: a conceptual view of its virtues; some guides on where to find more info; and an unexpected testimonial.

Conceptually, the program has the rare combination of virtues I have previously appreciated in Zoot, Agenda, et al. It is very flexible: there are few hard-wired constraints, and if you decide at any time that you want to change how info is structure or organized, that's easy to do. It scales well -- when I had tried earlier versions of the program, I'd felt as if its network-of-connections visual model would soon get overwhelmed if asked to do serious work. Thanks to some changes built into the latest model, it doesn't. It supports both "structured" and "dogpile" systems of info management. That is, you can assign information to categories or projects as it comes in -- but you can also dump it into a big holding area and then retrieve it via search. And it gets out of your way through a number of ergonomic tricks.

For more info, the company's home page is jam-packed with demos, including a "Brain 101" seminar that is held online every Friday. Jerry Michalski, a tech expert (and friend) has what is said to be the world's largest Brain, which he describes here. At this page, there is a live web version of an "Autobiographical Brain," which you can prowl around in as you would your own desktop version. A live link to Jerry Michalski's "world's largest brain" is here. David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, has his own Autobiographical Brain here, which looks like this:
DavidAllenBrain.jpg
(This screen shot is from the Windows version of The Brain; mine, above, is the Mac version. It runs on both and Linux/Unix, and the data files are compatible across platforms.)

Unexpected testimonial.  The Dutch writer Karel van Wolferen is best known to the world for his political analyses, especially concerning Japan. (Eg the magisterial Enigma of Japanese Power.) When he and I talk, it's often about new and "interesting" software -- and just as I was preparing this note I got a message from him with the subject line "The Grail":

Major discovery: About a dozen years ago I tried "The Brain", paid for it and uninstalled it a few weeks later. Recently, on the verge of new desperation in the middle of yet another atttempt at a complex book, I tried it again; and how it has changed!!

In conjunction with such programs as Whizfolders, Axon, any electronic card system, just multitudes of stored files, or Zoot, it may serve as the application that ties it all together and cuts straight through the labyrinths of things we cannot afford to leave out.

Karel van Wolferen's point is the crucial one: Just as there is no single, all-purpose carpentry tool or item of food or object of clothing, there is no one all-encompassing piece of software. But this program has drawn a second look from both him and me, at the same time. Check it out for yourself.

(For the record: paid full retail for the program; no connection with the company or its founders; etc.)

UPDATE: In response to some emails coming in, two clarifications. First, although Personal Brain might look like a "mind mapping" program, like MindManager, its functions and strengths are very different. It should be thought of in the "info organizing" category, not the "mapping" category -- even though it has a map-like look. More later. Second, in the unintentional-offense-by-omission category, I did not mean to slight either MindManager or two valuable Mac-based info-related programs, DevonThink and Scrivener, both of which I like. More later, too, on how all this fits together in a great bouillabaisse of interestingness (if not efficiency).

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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