Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mind Mapping

Over on ZDNet, Marc Orchant has given us a head's up on an excellent on-line service. MindMeister is where mind mapping meets Web 2.0. Read his post for a description and to find out how to get an invitation to the beta.

While Marc prefers the pricey Mindjet MindManager I've been using the relatively spartan FreeMind for some time now, and include it on the Small Business PowerPack (which is due for an update).

So now you're thinking, “What the heck is mind mapping software,” aren't you? OK, I'll take a stab at a quick definition. OK. I cribbed the following from my own write-up in my recommended software list. That's because I don't like to write the same stuff twice. If you can't plagiarize yourself, what good are you? On with the explanation.

Think about an outline. Everything sort of branches off of the single root “node” (a node is where it branches). The problem is, when you're looking at a complicated outline sometime after you've built it, it's not immediately clear which items branch directly off of the root node and which branch elsewhere. When you're looking at a certain level, then you miss the “relatedness” of the items because they're visually too far away from the previous level. Mind maps indicate the relatedness of the data in a very visual way by discarding that linear treeview for a more organic-looking structure. It's possible to do some of this with a collapsible outline editor, which is what, “back in the day” (the mid-1980s), we used to call a “thought processor.” It still gets pretty messy, and a mind mapper can clear that up.

Normally I have rule of thumb: I consider any software doomed if you have to have to take a class to understand it. Now, every definition I've seen of mind-mapping -- even at or on Tony Buzan's website (and Buzan originated the stuff in the first place) -- fails miserably in the definition and seems to indicate that you need a course in how to do it. In fact, these people charge serious money to conduct such classes. You'd think that if they understood it themselves, they could explain it better than that. (Read Tony Buzan's definition.) I'm with Albert Einstein:“You never truly understand a thing until you can explain it to your grandmother.”

I was ready to apply my rule of thumb and discard this software until I realized that the people pushing the concept commercially and academically do understand the product. They're simply over-educated and over-familiar with it to the point of having lost connection with their audience. They've lost the communication skills necessary to explain their concepts to those who don't yet have their peculiar vocabulary.

A mind mapper is basically an efficient outliner. Conceptually it's the same thing as the treeview list of files and folders you see in your Windows Explorer, only you have great freedom in positioning and labeling the content. And the items can be all over the place, not just in a tree. As such, you get a much better visual representation of where the concepts came from and how they relate to each other. Once you figure that out, mind mapping becomes extremely useful with no further explanation.

Here's what a mind map looks like. It's an actual map that I used to design and track the construction of a project. The process is simple. As you think of features, you add them. If they break down in to smaller components, you list those. If you have a bunch of features that seem to be related, you drag and reposition them so they branch off of the same idea. You don't have to think of everything at once: you just keep shuffling and adding to the map as you think of things, even as the project progresses. Lots of detail isn't necessary, either. You just get things down to the self-explanatory level. On this project I used the icons to track which components were completed or in work. For a small project that's really most of what you need in the way of project management tools. I build software, but you might prefer to use it to plot that detective novel you're writing.

By the way, here's the same map as imported by MindMeister. As you can see, different tools look different, but the concepts are the same. (Though MindMeister did not import my icons, you can add them back in).

If you want to get your thoughts organized, I recommend Freemind, but find what you like. For collaborative work it looks like MindMeister will be just the thing.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

ODF and Other Sundries: How I Wasted My Day

I pretty much wasted a day today doing some surfing and responding to other blogs, mostly with regard to ODF. John Carroll on ZDNet asks, "Does ODF lack sufficent detail?" Anyone familiar with me knows that my answer to this is an emphatic "No." That by itself isn't very convincing, though, so there is a spirited debate in the TalkBacks. The references lead everywhere, including Rob Weir's excellent blog, An Antic Disposition,, and other places. If you're of a mind to head over to ZDNet, I'd urge you to read the Wikipedia articles on OpenDocument and OpenFormula first. Yes, Virginia;'s spreadsheet formulas are documented.

BTW, if you missed it, Sun Microsystems has released the ODF Plugin for Microsoft Word 2003. With it, the ODF community has done what Microsoft apparently could not... built a plug-in that allows you to seamlessly open and save OpenDocument formatted files, and have this set as your default. Don't be the last on the block; get yours today. Remember, this is for Word 2003. By contrast, in addition to (which I use for the heavy lifting) I also have Microsoft Office 2007 here. I installed the ODF Add-in sponsored by Microsoft. I was somewhat shocked by its inadequacies, but I'll save some typing and let Sam Hiser explain why.

Along the way I found that Zaine Ridling has posted an excellent review of three modern word processors: StarOffice /, Microsoft Word 2007, and WordPerfect X3. I urge you to check it out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Stop Buying Crap

This rant on Gizmodo by Joel Johnson is dead on target. In it he takes on the world, telling us not to waste time and money on the bleeding edge of inadequacy.
...Stop buying products that serve any other master than you. Use older stuff that works. Make it yourself. Only buy new stuff from companies that have proven themselves good servants of their customers in the past. Complaining online about this stuff helps, but really, just stop buying it.
He's talking specifically about consumer tech gadgets here (and I've done my own share of ranting about stupid tech (scroll to April 15th)), but the advice applies equally well to all tech: computers, software, the whole ball of wax. Take your time and keep your money. Buy what works.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oops! RSS Feeds Fixed!

I recently noticed that the RSS feed on my personal blog was broken. Not recently broken, mind you, but broken since Day One. I've fixed it, so if you're of a mind to take a look and maybe subscribe, follow this link to read the blog, or this link to the atom XML file with the feed. Today I'm posting a little something for Valentine's day.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Installing LyX on Windows... Successfully!

If you're a writer, and you want to write, say, a book, you really should forget all about working in Microsoft Office or and look into LyX. I know that's a little strange to hear from an proponent such as myself, but I'm also a proponent of using the right tool for the right job, and LyX is an excellent tool. I've used it for a number of years on Linux, but it's nice to have it on any platform you use.

LyX defies categorization. It's not a word processor per se. It's not a text editor. It's a document processor, and through some convolutions it acts as a front-end to the marvelous TeX typesetting system. Here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject. So let's move past the definitions and whether you want it -- if you're a serious writer or scientific researcher you simply do -- and discuss how to get it and how to install it successfully on your Windows box.

But first I'll make the slight detour to point out that LyX already works with most Linux distributions right out of the box. All the dependencies we'll discuss are handled for you and it's just a case of using it. In Windows you not only need to work around it; you need to work around a bug in the installer.

LyX depends on a number of other important applications. These are:

ProgramGet it from
Python, a programming
GNU Aspell, for spell-checking and
ImageMagick, for image
MikTeX, a Windows port of TeX. (you want the basic distribution, which will install components as required. I've linked you straight to it.)
Ghostscript, for converting to Postscript and

Now, here's the thing... when you install LyX, the installer will offer to install all these things for you. I've had spotty luck with that. Whether this works is about a 50-50 proposition. So I recommend getting all of the dependencies squared away first, then installing LyX.

The second thing that can go wrong is that there is a known bug in the Windows installer. When you've installed LyX, it will not work. Specifically, regardless of what you do, you're going to be told that the document classes aren't installed. Also, Python will not be installed automatically, though you're going to need it to fix the situation.

So, install the programs I've listed above, in the order I've listed them. (Actually, you won't need to install Aspell, as the LyX installer installs it every time whether you've already got it or not. That's another installer bug.) When you install MikTex it will want to know where you want to get updates from... tell it to download from the web as needed. Then get LyX from and install it. This will install fine and will appear to have worked right up until you attempt to open a LyX document. Then it will tell you that a document class is missing, and you won't be able to generate output. Ignore that for the moment.

Now open My Computer, go to the directory into which LyX was installed, and open the Resources subfolder. For most people, this will be C:\Program Files\LyX14\Resources. If you've installed Python then you'll see the Python icon next to the file (or just "configure" if you're not displaying extensions). Double-click this file to execute it.

What's going to happen here is that will examine your installation, detect the missing classes in MikTex, and offer to download them. Download every file it offers.

Don't even bother to run LyX after this... it still won't work. Some resources on the Web suggest editing some configuration files... none of these suggestions have worked on any installation I've tried. It's fastest and most reliable just to go to the Control Panel, then Add/Remove Programs and simply remove LyX. Then re-install it. The installer will once again detect all of the existing stuff (except Aspell).

That's it. It will work.

The one thing that doesn't work very well is the built-in support for version control, so I didn't bother to put instructions for that here. but that's easy to work around using CS-RCS. This is free to use for individuals and open-source projects.