Reporter's Notebook

Chronicles of Interesting Software
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the match between digital technology and human thought.
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Revision of The Brain

Last month I mentioned that among my perennial favorites in the "interesting software" category is The Brain, known in a previous incarnation as Personal Brain and out now with a substantially revised The Brain 7. Here's how it looks:


Steve Zeoli, of Vermont, has over the years proudly identified himself as a sufferer of CRIMP -- Compulsive Reactive Information Manager Purchasing. This is of course the same syndrome I euphemistically describe as "a taste for 'interesting' software," and it has led Zeoli, like me, to keep trying every new info-handling system that appears. It has also led him to a series of illuminating chronicles about these programs. My purpose in writing today is to point toward some of his recent entries on the newest edition of The Brain (he is also the source of the screenshot above). They are:

- An overview of the Brain's improvements, strengths, and limits;
- a description of how he uses The Brain as a "commonplace book";
- how he uses Tinderbox for the same purpose (hey, endlessly trying out new tools for the same job is an "opportunity," not a waste or distraction, in CRIMP-land);
- an early Tinderbox-v-Brain smackdown highlighting their respective traits;
- and others you'll see on his site.

If you are interested in software, you will be interested in this.

Winter is coming, as they would say in Game of Thrones land. By which I mean not the actual season but grim-toned political discussion ahead. So again let's pause to look on the bright side with:

1) Chinese hoops. Here is a very nice brief video, courtesy of reader AK and SB Nation, of Stephon Marbury joyously celebrating with his Beijing Ducks teammates after their victory over the Guangdong Southern Tigers to win the Chinese Basketball Association championship. Really, this is heartwarming in about twelve different ways -- and a partial balm for this season's untimely end to Linsanity.

2) Aussie beer. The promised full retrospective report is still to come. But as a guide to anyone who wonders whether Australia's brewers, long famed for blah watery lagers, could produce something more ambitious, here are another two signs of progress.

One is the Stow Away IPA entry in the James Squire line of craft brews, shown below in its natural setting in a James Squire brewpub in Hobart. (The company itself is based in Sydney -- and is owned by Kirin, which in turn is part of the Mitsubishi combine.) Stow Away is the purple one on the left and is about the closest thing I've found in the Antipodes to the current American-style IPAs.


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for TasmaniaBrewpub.jpgHere is how it looks in action at the brewpub, at right, showing its convincing rich hue. It's the one being held; the other is the Four Wives Pilsener. Be warned that until the Aussie palate becomes fully evolved and moves the market with it, this still seems relatively hard to find. Many "bottle shops" that stock the rest of the James Squire line seem not to know about Stow Away.

The other candidate: from the Malt Shovel Mad Brewers (a James Squire subsidiary), a short-term summer seasonal offering called "Hoppy Hefe." I wouldn't have picked this out as a Hefeweizen, since it doesn't look cloudy or taste particularly of wheat. But it certainly is full of hops, which makes it unusual locally and for which I am grateful. It's also full of alcohol: 7% (like Supplication and some others from the famed Russian River line), so a little goes a long way. This southern-hemisphere summer season is ending rather than beginning, and so is this beer's run, so if you see a bottle, don't miss the chance. Side note: beer is expensive in Australia, largely because of taxes, and this is extra-premium priced, at roughly $10 for a 640ml bottle, about the size of two "normal" bottles. Close-up shot of the bottle, so you can recognize it, below.

Thumbnail image for MadHefe.jpg

3) Interesting software. Over the years -- really, decades -- I have ended up playing working with the same set of "interesting" programs for storing info, classifying it and moving it around, and generally observing the relationship between software and thought. The perennial favorites include Zoot, Windows-only, which I've used for nearly 20 years and is recently available in a whole new version; Tinderbox, Mac only, a more recent favorite;  Mind Manager, Windows and Mac, which I find useful for outlining (as I do OmniOutliner, for Mac and iPad); and among others (including the indispensable Mac duo of Scrivener and DevonThink) there is also Personal Brain, for Windows, Mac, and Linux. I won't take the time to lay out the whole theory of this idiosyncratic but seductive program. I will say that a new version, The Brain 7, is out in beta, and I've been using and liking it. If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, you will be interested in this.

Thus endeth the uplift for now.

I've mentioned several times my use of and enthusiasm for Scrivener, a $39.95 writing program put out by a two-person operation in Cornwall, England. It's Mac-only, so stop right here if that means you can't consider it. (With VMware Fusion, I can happily run any Windows program on a Mac, but things don't work the other way around.)


Actually, don't stop right here, since the traits that make this program (logo at left) valuable are in principle ones that could be applied in other writing and research programs. Because it helps explain these useful features, and not because it's essentially a free ad for Scrivener (with which I have no connection of any sort, other than as a customer), I quote a note from a recent convert, Noah Ennis, a graduating senior at the University of Chicago. He talks mainly about two of the program's features: a simple-sounding but surprisingly important "full screen mode," which blocks out everything else happening on the computer so you can concentrate just on what you're writing; and a "project" organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you're writing.  Again the point about what follows is, it tells us something about this particular program, which may or may not suit your computer-using tastes; but it also suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think. Ennis wrote this to me because I suggested the program to him. He says:

I don't think I've ever been excited about software, but this is something that's such a quantitative increase in efficiency (by lowering the energy tax on storage, retrieval, and switching between documents) that it qualitatively changes the way I read and write on the computer. Here are four areas in which it's drastically changed my computer life:

1. It makes all writing projects, but especially any large project, easier and more pleasant. My old method was to have a bunch of different Word documents open, and to move between them with a lot of time spent searching for windows and a lot of redundant writing. For [his undergraduate thesis], I ended up with something like 40 documents of which I only ever used 8 or 10. In Scrivener everything is instantly accessible and easy to switch to, which paradoxically means that I can write more haphazardly-- I can paste large block quotes from sources instead of putting a link, I can keep multiple outlines going at the same time as I'm writing. To say nothing of the full screen mode. I'm completely baffled that appleworks, word, and textedit haven't done something as simple as allow document loading from a side bar, or implement a fullscreen button (or if they have, I'm baffled at my and my friend's ignorance of these features). I'm convinced that if I had Scrivener when I was writing the [thesis], I could have saved literally dozens of hours of redundant work simply from better organization.

2. Scrivener means that I can keep all of my lists and files in one or two central places, instead of in 50 word documents in my OS X dock. I used to have to hunt for the appropriate document every time I wanted to store a word, quote, book title, new concept, article, person's name, block of text to read later, etc.. Now I can do it in one place (and again, paradoxically, this means I can multiply the number of bins I have because the attention externality of each bin is so much lower. So I can make a bin for quotes about "ways of reading" where before that level of specificity would take too much time to access quickly and frequently).

Following previous dispatches here and here about the endless, quixotic search for the ideal outlining program, many people wrote in to sing the praises of a Windows-based program I had not been aware of: InfoQube, or IQ. (Hardee-har!! I get it!) Sample testimonial note from someone who identifies himself as "a highly satisfied user" and who doesn't appear to be connected to the company:

"I'd like to let you know that InfoQube (IQ), while still a bit unknown and not out of beta yet (but soon to reach v1.0 ), is a very powerful Outliner too!

"In my humble opinion, probably the most powerful and flexible out there. Really. I have been using it for the last 2 years, doing incredible things with it... Not only does it do outlining, but it also has a calendar, Gantt charts, pivot tables, etc.

"It's not your typical software : it takes an open mind and a bit of reading (not that much!) to understand its principles. These small initial efforts are quite rewarding, that's for sure!
Have a look at it (Download), and feel free to ask questions on our friendly Forum. ["Our" = user community, not speaking for the company itself] Pierre Paul Landry, our IQ talented, dedicated and friendly developer, answers many questions himself."

Here's a thematic illustration from the company's site, on the "Qube" theme. (Click for bigger.) Disappointingly, the actual program is confined to normal 2-D computer screen displays. I have not yet tried InfoQube myself, but I received enough mail from people who have that it seemed worth mentioning.


While I'm on the subject of satisfied users, I have mentioned several times the modestly-priced, Mac-based writing program Scrivener, on which I am relying for more and more of my work. An impressive list of writers (mainly novelists) who have become devotees is here. Worth considering.

While out of range for the past week, I've not weighed in on a lot of subjects I would normally have a view on, from the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, to the nature and function of the TSA, to the implications of press and judicial developments within China, to the latest twist in China's policy on the RMB.

I will plan to catch up, on each and all, in the next day or two. For the moment ... how about a promising entry from the world of "interesting" technology?

What I have in mind is Thinklinkr, a free, "cloud"-based outlining program that very much deserves attention. Since the dawn of the personal computing age, outlining programs have constituted a fascinating but often heartbreaking product category. Fascinating because they are an essential component of electronic "thinking tools." (Another essential component: systems for collecting, organizing, and retrieving info. And ideally one more: something to do the actual thinking and writing. So far, no dice.) Heartbreaking because several of the best entries have atrophied or been orphaned, and others are minority tastes.

Perhaps it's mainly rosy retrospect, but I still think the classic DOS outliner GrandView was the best I've ever used. Background on GrandView here. Those I use and like these days include the elegantly minimalist BrainStorm (PC only); the intriguing-in-many-ways PersonalBrain (PC, Mac, LInux); the also-intriguing MindManager (PC, Mac); OmniOutliner (Mac); plus the outlining functions in the wonderful Mac-only writing program Scrivener; plus the outlining functions in the upcoming Version 6 release of the wonderful PC-only "idea processor," Zoot. (Zoot 6 is in late beta.) And some others I am forgetting right now.

I give that long warmup to say that I've always cared about this field, and I find Thinklinkr a worthy new contender,as a very fast, very flexible online outlining tool. Its basis in the "cloud" means that you don't have to worry about Mac/PC issues nor about synching among your different machines. You do, of course, have to be online. It also keeps track of previous versions of an outline, and allows users in differently places to collaborate in real time. Worth checking out. (Partial screenshot below, and further info below that.)


Reference section: For a history of the outlining field in general, start here; for a later "rediscovery" of outlines, go here. For my previous perspectives on and judgments about other "thinking" systems, see this about Zoot; this about BrainStorm; and this about Personal Brain. For a blog by the designers of Thinklinkr, see a sample entry here and main page here. I have written to the company to ask about the ideas behind the program and will post the answers shortly. Thanks to Michael Ham for the lead.

I am a long-standing devotee of the David Allen "Getting Things Done" (GTD) approach to life, as I first described in this Atlantic article about him four years ago. We've become friends and stayed in touch since then too, which at least for me has been very enjoyable. Plus, since long before the Atlantic wrote about him he has been a loyal subscriber!

The GTD Way mainly involves habits of mind and action, but it also places a lot of emphasis on having the right tools, gizmos, and gimmicks to support those habits. Over the years I've used a variety of software to set up GTD-based systems on my computer. Ones I've liked include Results Manager and Chandler. The one I keep coming back to for my own purposes, more than a dozen years after I started using it, is the idiosyncratic but powerful Zoot. Zoot is PC-only, and for that matter text-only (no graphics etc), but it runs flawlessly on a Mac under VMWare Fusion.

Here are three more to bear in mind, with different strengths and idiosyncracies of their own: