TheBrain

The Climate Web – super WebBrain site

One of my commenters, Mark, referred to a WebBrain site that he has been working on called The Climate Web, built using TheBrain. A note of explanation is perhaps in order. You can buy a stand alone license for TheBrain and use it on one computer (Mac or Windows: it is cross platform). But you can also get the “Pro Combo” which gives you not only the desktop application, but also cloud service allowing you to keep your “Brains” in sync across your various computers and access them online. The online versions of your data can be private (default), or public. The Climate Web is public, of course.

Here’s an excerpt from Mark’s comment that provides more detail about the site:

Something you would be interested in is our effort to use the Brain as a knowledge management solution for an entire field, indeed one as complicated as climate change. Our Climate Web Brain is at http://www.theclimateweb.com It’s massive, serves many purposes, and we’re constantly experimenting with how to make the information more accessible to very different audiences. FYI, it contains >10,000 documents and more than 15,000 URLs, but more important is how we’re trying to use the unique capabilities of the Brain to link information together in ways that can help provide access to “actionable knowledge” that is specific to an individual user.

One excellent example of how TheBrain can help you manage your information, even in copious quantities. (Update: Please note Mark’s request for input about The Climate Web in the comments section of this post.)

FYI: Climate change is happening and is caused by man. Just to make my view clear.

Using TheBrain as digital bullet journal

TheBrain as bullet journal - main screen

For the past 14 months or so I’ve been keeping a journal using the bullet journal method, which I wrote about here and here. During this time, I’ve found using a paper notebook quite fun and effective. I’ve been curious about how these same methods could be used with software on a computer and/or iPad. I’ve considered many apps for this, but none seemed to come close to matching the facility of pen and paper. However, I think I’ve finally found an option that could work very well for me.

The following discussion is a bit of a thought experiment on my part, rather than a report on my successful use of TheBrain for bullet journaling. That is, I’ve still only dabbled with TheBrain for this purpose, but I see real promise and wanted to share my thoughts.

Requirements of a Digital Bullet Journal

Before moving into a discussion of how TheBrain would work for this purpose, I should first define what I think are the key attributes of a digital bullet journal?

  • It would need to be accessible from all your devices, to be instantly available for recording and referencing.
  • Recording a log entry should be quick and easy. This is the “rapid logging” part of the journal process.
  • It should provide a means for identifying the logged item as a note, event or task.
  • It should provide a means for further classifying any necessary follow-up on the item:
    • Priority
    • Delegation
    • Further research needed
    • Etc…
  • I need to be able to “page” through my entries for quick and easy review.

There are many other facilities I might hope for in a digital bullet journal, but these are the ones that are required to match the efficacy of a paper notebook.

With these criteria established, let’s look at how TheBrain manages with a bullet journal.

TheBrain as Bullet Journal

Universal Access

TheBrain runs on Windows PCs, Macs and iPad, but also provides online access, so that you should have little trouble getting access to your information at any time. On Mac and PC, your files are available locally so you don’t have to be online to use them, but you can sync your bullet journal brain between devices relatively easily (though I do find the syncing a bit stodgie).

Rapid Logging

Creating one line entries is relatively easy with TheBrain. Key here is creating a new thought for each entry. At first I tried creating a thought for each day and using the notes section for the logging of entries. This doesn’t work as well because it makes it more difficult to be able to quickly scan your entries during regular reviews. There are other advantages to one thought = one entry, which I’ll get to below.

Classification of Entries

There is more than one way to classify an entry with TheBrain, but the one I feel works best for bullet journaling is using thought types. Each thought in a brain can be assigned one thought type, so I have created the following types:

  • Note
  • Event
  • Task (I’ve got one type for “Action Required” and one for “Action Completed”

One advantage to this approach is that you can visually identify the type of entry by assigning an icon to each type. See the screen shot below:

You can assign "thought types" to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

You can assign “thought types” to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

Further Classification

TheBrain allows you to assign multiple tags to your entries (one of the differences between a tag and a type). This is handy for adding classifying indicators to an entry, because an entry can be high priority AND delegated, for instance. See the screen shot below for how tags work:

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I've got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I’ve got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

Quick Review

While it is not the strongest aspect of TheBrain relating to bullet journaling, “paging through” your notes is pretty easy and effective. Everytime you click on a thought (entry), it becomes the active thought and moves to the center of the screen (known in TheBrain parlance as The Plex). You can also switch from “normal” view to “outline” view for a more familiar experience as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

So TheBrain meets all the criteria of a digital bullet journal I set out at the start. Let’s see it in action.

Using TheBrain as a Bullet Journal

Here’s how I have setup TheBrain for bullet journaling. (Refer to the above screenshots for demonstrations of what I’m referring to.)

First, I built a brain that has a thought for each day using the method I describe here.

I make today’s thought the active thought, then add bullet entries under this day, classifying them by type as I make them. I would tag each entry as needed. If an entry needs additional information, I can add that to the notes section, attach a URL or as many files as gets the job done.

I pin the current day to the top of the screen to make it a speedy return if I’ve wandered off somewhere else in my journal brain.

And that’s it for the basics. But there are other advantages to using TheBrain for this purpose.

Other Advantages of TheBrain

I have actually created more thought types than the basic three. I have two task types: Action Required and Action Completed. I also have types for book and movie notes. You can make as many types as you want, but I want to keep the number of choices small, as too many options begin to defeat the purpose of rapid logging.

I haven’t used my digital bullet journal for work, so I haven’t needed to do this, but if you’re considering it, you might use tags to indicate colleauges to whom you have delegated a task. Or to mark an entry as relating to an active project. I have tags that indicate my level of appreciation for the entry; for example, rating a movie from one to five stars. Classifying with tags in TheBrain allows you to find all other entries with that same tag, as indicated in this screenshot:

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

Because a thought can live under more than one parent thought, I can make an entry about the start of something under one day, and link to the same thought on the day I finish. I would do this, say, for tracking my reading.

I can also easily archive or backup my digital bullet journal by exporting selections of the journal to tabbed text, including notes. See below for how this looks:

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Other considerations

TheBrain isn’t cheap. Well yes it is. I’ll explain:

If you want to use TheBrain on more than one device and keep your journal in sync, then you’ll have to buy a license, which costs $299 initially, then is $159 a year. That’s not chump change, and if you’re only using the app for journaling, it may not be worth it to you. But there are two factors that may mitigate this expense. First, you might find, like me, that TheBrain becomes indispensible for other uses, and the expense starts to actually feel minimal. But the other factor may play in as well. There is a free version of TheBrain for personal use (and what is more personal than a journal?), so you can try it out to see if you like it. And, if you only want to keep your journal on one device, then there is no need to upgrade to the pro version. I believe all the features I’ve described here (other than syncing) work the same in the free version. (There’s a comparison chart here.)

The bottom line

You may have noticed that the screenshots above are somewhat sparsely populated with entries. As I mentioned, I have only been dabbling in TheBrain as a bullet journal so far, but writing about it like this has made me a bit more excited by the prospect. If I didn’t really love my paper journal, I would definitely adopt TheBrain whole-heartedly for bullet journaling. And it helps that I rely heavily on TheBrain for other purposes. I’ll report back if things develop further.

TheBrain 8 — useful improvements

I have written a few times before about TheBrain (here, here, here and here). A new version was just released, so it feels like a good time for an update about this extremely useful software tool.

TheBrain is a little hard to describe. It looks somewhat like a mind mapping application. It certainly can be used for this function, but if that is all you’re looking for, you would probably do better with one of the genuinely dedicated mind mappers on the market. The company that develops TheBrain refers to it as a knowledge visualization application, which is appropriate. I’ve called it a GPS system for my information, and I still think that’s the best description, at least for the way I use TheBrain. (See the end of this post for a short primer on TheBrain lexicon.)

The geography of an open "brain" in TheBrain.

The geography of an open “brain” in TheBrain.

If you have tried TheBrain in the past and not been sold on its facility, then you will probably not be enticed by version 8, which is not a revolutionary step forward. But it has a number of improvements that I am already finding quite handy after just a few days of use. Here’s a quick run down of the three new features I like best so far:

  1. Icons. TheBrain has long allowed you to attach icons to your thoughts, but you had to find and capture those images yourself. Now TheBrain comes with an extensive library of thought icons. Regardless of the fact that this is long over due, it is a nice feature, which allows you to include an additional visual cue about the context of your thoughts.
  2. Type Tool. Each thought in a brain can be have a specific type (or no type, but it can’t have multiple types). You can set each type to have a specific color and icon. The new Type Tool is an index of all the types in the open brain. The Type Tool displays the types with their assigned colors and icons, so it also serves as a key to help you identify thought types in the Plex. Clicking on a thought type in the Type Tool shows you in the Plex all the thoughts of that type in one screen. Another nice feature of thought types, by the way, is that they can have a hierarchy. So you could, for example, have a master type called “people” with a sub type called “vendors” and a sub-sub type called “designers.”
  3. Quick Thought Create. One of the more powerful features of TheBrain is its search function, although it is kind of camouflaged by its small size and innocuous location. Now, if you type a thought name into the search box and there is no matching thought, you get an option to create it then and there, and it becomes the active thought.
  4. Mac OS Updates. TheBrain is a cross-platform application. It’s always felt to me like it is a little more optimized for use in Windows — though it has some Mac-specific features, especially related to the search function. So any enhancements for Mac OS are welcome, though these are not robust.

Other new features, which I have yet to use, include

  • brain templates, which allow you to create a new brain with a selection of ready-to-go thoughts, tags and types;
  • search and link to a Twitter thread;
  • timeline view, which shows you a chronological view based on modification date and time;
  • brain image output, so you can export a JPG of the Plex for use in documents and presentations;
Improved WebBrain Management

One of the major areas of improvement is in the integration with WebBrain. WebBrain is kind of like Dropbox just for TheBrain. With WebBrain you can keep TheBrain synchronized among two or more computers. You can also view your brains online through the browser, and you can share your brains with others should you care to. Version 8 adds more controls for working with your online brains from your desktop, better synchronization, and other enhancements to make working between the local application and the online application more efficient. Ultimately, this may be the most important aspect of the new version, as the company is clearly trying to sell its customers on its “Pro Combo” subscription package, which includes a license to use TheBrain on any number of your own personal computers, and WebBrain. This isn’t cheap, especially if you’re one of those folks who thinks “apps” should cost less than $20. It is $299 the first time around, then renews at $159 annually. (Let me be clear, if you decline to renew your subscription, you can still use TheBrain locally on your computer, you just do not get free upgrades or the use of WebBrain.) I use TheBrain every day at work on my Windows PC (still running Windows 7), and my MacBook at home, so this feels like a very reasonable price to me. The key for me is that TheBrain continues to improve, which makes paying the annual subscription fee all the easier.

I’ll be writing more about TheBrain in the coming weeks.

Brain Lexicon:
  • Brain: A database/diagram
  • Plex: The diagram space
  • Thought: One item in a “brain”
  • Active Thought: The currently selected
  • Tool Bar: Optionally open area with tab-access to various pieces of meta-data and other information about the thoughts in the brain.

Some thoughts on TheBrain

TheBrain

PersonalBrain is now known as TheBrain. (Click for larger view.)

I’ve written a few times about PersonalBrain, an information management application from TheBrain Technologies. The most recent version of PersonalBrain is 6.5, but the company is very close to releasing version 7, and this represents kind of a new chapter in the application’s development. Version 7 is still a stand alone desktop application, but it is much more connected with WebBrain, the service that allows you to view your “brains” online and synchronize them across your computers. As such, the program will go back to its original name, dropping the personal to become TheBrain once again.

Where three options were available before — the free, core and pro editions — the company is dropping the core edition, but has lowered the price on the pro edition from $249 to $219. They are also offering annual subscriptions, which include all updates to the application and WebBrain access for $159. If you already have a license and a WebBrain subscription, the upgrade price is pro-rated.

I just upgraded. Though still in beta, version 7 is very nearly ready for official release and seems quite stable. Aside from whatever under-the-hood changes have been made to make TheBrain and WebBrain work better together, the major addition to version 7 is what you can do with links. The calendar has also been improved to the point where I am actually starting to use it. I’m not going to go into all the changes, but you can read about them here.

I’ve been corresponding with a fellow CRIMPer*, who had this comment about TheBrain:

I find it nearly ideal for connecting bits of information, but don’t see it as useful for teasing out connections and structure over time when the information has some depth or complexity to it. Maybe I’m selling it short.

I do not think he is selling it short. This is my sense too. TheBrain is a great store house for information of all kinds. It is unparalleled in connecting related information. But it isn’t so great for garnering insights from previously unrelated information. In other words, if you didn’t think about the connections at the time you were adding the data to your brain, you’re not likely to come to some ah ha moment later. This is not a criticism of TheBrain, just an observation.

And, while ThBrain’s main interface (called the Plex) is very versatile in a lot of ways, it is also very rigid. I’m thinking of the Map View in Tinderbox, where you can freely move your information around to try out various associations. Applications like DevonThink and ConnectedText have functions that try to draw associations among your information that you may not have noticed. Scrivener has it’s scrivenings and cork board views.

Those are examples of applications with functions that facilitate the thinking about, the comparing, the merging and unmerging of text/information so that you can take it from one form and transform it into something more. TheBrain doesn’t really do that, and I don’t think it is really intended to, though the developers might disagree.

I may be getting beyond the comfort zone of my wisdom/knowledge of these topics. Mostly I’m trying to understand my sense of the limitations of TheBrain (and by extension, of other applications like it). You could just as easily chalk this up to my working/thinking style. That is, everyone’s experience will be different.

Nevertheless, I have been relying upon TheBrain for the past few years and find it almost indispensable at this point. Why? Because it is a beautiful warehouse for collecting all kinds of information. In the Plex, each individual item is called a Thought (although I prefer to think of these as Ideas, in the platonic sense). When you create a Thought in the Plex, that Thought becomes the star around which a solar system of information can revolve. Here are the ways you can associate information to a single Thought in TheBrain:

  1. Link child Thoughts — topics that flow from the Thought.
  2. Link parent Thoughts — topics from which the Thought flows.
  3. Link related or jump Thoughts — topics related in an unhierarchical way.
  4. Add notes in the Note tool.
  5. Attach as many URLs as you’d like.
  6. Attach almost any type of file: spreadsheets, text documents, PDFs, pictures, etc.
  7. Give the Thought a Type — make all urgent Thoughts red, for example.
  8. Give the Thought multiple Tags — Tags allow you to quickly find Thoughts that share a Tag.
  9. Use the calendar to associate date-specific events.
  10. Use links to define special relationships among the data.

I’m undoubtedly forgetting some. But the point is, if you are working on a project, TheBrain makes a perfect repository for collecting all the information you need to properly manage that project. It also makes a great archive for stashing information — as long as you can find a place to put it in your Brain.

I have three active Brains, as follows:

  1. My day job Brain. I use this Brain to collect and organize resources I need to do my job. I don’t use it much for actual note-taking (see below).
  2. My Commonplace Book Brain. This is my organized stash of information, tidbits I want to keep for future reference. For example, I have a curiosity about Neanderthals, so whenever I come across an interesting piece of information about these relatives of Homo Sapiens, I drop it into the Neanderthal Thought.
  3. A Brain for my “other” job. This is a Brain for organizing information related to a nonprofit historic organization of which I am president.
TheBrain

The Neanderthal Thought in my Commonplace Book. (Click for larger view.)

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention note-taking as a use for any of those Brains. I don’t think TheBrain is a good note-taking environment. If you read my previous blog article, you’ll know that I’ve started using ConnectedText for managing my day notes at my day job. I could do this in TheBrain, but I find CT a more fertile environment for writing out my thoughts. I also like CT better for logging notes about projects, because all notes are more easily viewable in one topic. The note editor in TheBrain is one of the weaker aspects of the program. It’s good for quick, short notes, but not so much for longer text. The nice thing is that I can provide links back and forth between CT and TheBrain (“C.T. and The Brain” — sounds like a cartoon), so I can leverage the advantages of each program. Of course, the whole system is a work in progress.

And in my non-work life, I have been using Tinderbox to keep a Day Book.

All this probably sounds complicated, but believe me, if my organization system really were this straight forward, I’d be happy. I’ve also got information residing in a number of other useful applications… but if I start to list it here I may start to cry. This amalgam is due in part to that CRIMP thing I referred to before, but it is also because I live in the Mac world at home and in the Windows world at work. And that’s another reason I love TheBrain. It is one of the few applications that works just fine on both platforms. Using WebBrain I can keep my three key Brains in sync, and that is a really big relief for me.

This has been a bit of a rambling, undirected article, but if there is one point to be made about TheBrain it is this: I think of it as a super-charged, even magical Finder/Windows Explorer. It is a substitute for the file system on my computers, at least for very specific types of information.

*CRIMP stands for Compulsive Reactive Information Manager Purchasing, a mythical malady that those of us who feel compelled to try every piece of information management software use to explain/describe our behavior. See some CRIMP in action (and learn the inspiring stories of those who have over come it) at OutlinerSoftware.com.