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
-- 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 much 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.
Here is an idea of how that can look with another level of links in the network of connections made visible:
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
, the program has the rare combination of virtues I have previously appreciated in Zoot, Agenda, et al. It is very flexible:
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
. 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. David Allen
, of Getting Things Done
fame, has his own Autobiographical Brain here
, which looks like 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
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
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.)
Read the complete post at http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/08/my_new_favorite_software_perso.php
24 Aug 2009 5:12