Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Organize your world with TheBrain

If you manage multiple projects and activities at one time, you’re probably using a variety of tools on your computer to keep organized: to-do lists; folders; files; calendars; and apps, such as Evernote, electronic Post-Its, mind maps, etc. But at some point using multiple tools just adds to the confusion; you now need to figure out which tool to use for what activity, adding even more challenges.

If you use files and folders, you’ll experience one of the limitations of the computer’s file structure: It’s a linear system, and it's difficult to associate the same file with different activities.

I’ve tried many of the options listed above, trying to track different activities with one application, going way back to Lotus Agenda. What I’ve found works best is TheBrain, originally called Personal Brain.

I’ve been trying out the latest version of TheBrain 7.0, a software program that helps you manage everything in one place from one screen. TheBrain provides a visual representation of all of your activities, much like a mind map, making it much easier to visualize all of your projects, yet allowing you to focus in on any one of them, much in the way we think. Compared to a mind map, TheBrain has more flexibility for viewing and managing activities, and overall is much more powerful. I’ve used TheBrain to manage clients, organize files, track projects and create to-do lists.

One of the major benefits of TheBrain is that you can combine all sorts of disparate activities, as unrelated as they may be, onto one page, yet focus in on one specific area at one time. You feel in control of all of your activities because they are all there on a single page.

For example, let's suppose you want to keep track of the activities associated with your clients, as well as personal activities and planning an event.

You’ll create three items — Clients, Personal and Event, called thoughts, using TheBrain’s parlance — below the main title, such as "PhilsActivities." When you click on Clients, it becomes the dominant main thought, just as it would be in real life. Personal and Event fade into the background, allowing you to move them out of your mind and to focus on just Clients.

You next add all of your clients’ names below the Client thought with just a few keystrokes. These “daughter” thoughts are each connected to “Client” with a line to show the relationship. If you have 10 clients, their names will each be below the Clients thought.

You can now add items below each client, such as contact information, activities, follow-ups, etc. You can also link additional information to any of these thoughts, such as Web addresses, spreadsheets, email or documents of any kind. This feature allows you to click on a client to see a list of important documents, rather than searching for them in your file folders.

When you’re working on a single client, that becomes the dominant thought, and everything else on the page fades to the background. You can choose to make everything disappear or just shrink.

I use this feature to “park” an item of importance in the right place so that I can easily find it and use it later on, in the context of everything around it.

David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done,” a terrific book on personal productivity, refers this activity as clearing your mind and getting it out of your head: “First of all, if it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection bucket, that you know you’ll come regularly back and sort through.” Allen’s central premise is the relief we experience by moving our tasks outside of our mind to be able to focus on what’s at hand.

TheBrain is in use by half of the Fortune 100 organizations and has been downloaded more than a million times, according to the company. It said that one user has built a brain with more than 160,000 thoughts.

Source: The Daily Transcript

Video: Organizing and Visualizing Information in TheBrain 7

Monday, October 22, 2012

Mind Maps: The Poor Man's Design Tool

UML too complex? Flowcharts too old school? Mind maps offer a simple way to capture designs and weave them together elegantly
Like many of you, no doubt, I am a constant tinkerer with programs I'm working on. I'm nearly always refactoring and, in my head, I'm constantly refining designs as I go along. While I try to limit these tendencies so that I can actually get something done, I find the process of constant appraisal and revision to be useful. It deepens my understanding of what I'm doing and often turns up small changes in design that can streamline an operation or facilitate a downstream action.

Many times, I want to capture the design I have in mind without recourse to UML. While UML is a reasonably good format (and due to its universal adoption, the right one to use for many use cases), it's not an easy format to get right, once you move out of the core two or three diagrams known to most developers (class, sequence, use case, etc.) What I'm trying to capture is frequently none of those. I simply want a way to write down a series of actions, decisions, or implementation details that hang off some part of the existing software.

Text is an easy way to do this, and I've previously discussed the value of capturing coding-time decisions in a spreadsheet-like document. However, text quickly becomes problematic for anything but the most trivial of notes. Design artifacts should be easy to shuffle around, change, adapt, and otherwise modify. And so for that, I use a mind mapping tool. Mind maps are a weird name for a diagrammatic representation of loosely connected ideas. They are a central tool in brainstorming sessions. Mind map tools help capture ideas and then mush them around until you have the structure you want. While mind maps take many forms, the canonical representations look like a central idea with branches sticking out:

This is a preliminary mind map for HTML5 capabilities of a project I contribute to. It is read by going to the center point and starting with the top-most right branch ("At Startup"), then proceeding clockwise through all the branches (to "Verification"). Actually, this is the uncluttered, so-called "collapsed" version of the map. When given its full expansion, the mind map looks like this:

As you can see, lots more notes have been filled in off the various branches. I've also added icons on items where decisions still need to be made. By the time I'm done laying out the HTML 5 support in this project, the map will be even bushier. Because I can selectively open and close branches, I can focus on just what I need to. Later, if I want to move items from one branch to another, add images, icons, and the rest, I am able to tweak and modify to my heart's content until I'm satisfied I've captured what I need.

This might not look like a design diagram, but in fact, by the time I'm done, it will contain a huge amount of design data. Beyond its ability to let me initially capture fragments of ideas and then slowly build them out, the mind map has one other salient benefit: I can send it to anyone, including users, and they can read and understand it. Try doing that with a UML diagram!

When the design is more or less to my satisfaction, I can extend the arms of the map to include notes on the code implementation. I might, for example, include references to existing code, comments on the choice of a possible collection needed for a specific feature, as well as other notes about potential coding issues. This is not a full spec, of course, and can't substitute for one, but if it was assembled in conversations with the team, it generally provides enough information so that they can progress without stumbling into crevasses.

Mind maps are beneficial in other contexts: They function equally well as tools for writing documentation. User documentation often consists of discussions of many features that frequently have to be resequenced as new functionality is added. The mind map enables this shifting around and encourages quickly capturing a key point to be made in one of the subsections in a chapter — all of which is neatly encapsulated in the hierarchical, spidery format of the mind map.

There are several free mind map products available in the open-source bazaar. The one I've used most and know best is FreeMind. I know users of other packages who prefer theirs, but the OSS packages all do more or less the same thing. Among commercial packages, XMind gets great reviews. If you prefer drawing up maps and diagrams in the cloud, then MapMeister is a choice that many developers seem to like. Whatever your choice, if simplicity is the watchword of good software, then mind maps certainly deliver. 

Source: drdobbs.com
Autor: Andrew Binstock

Friday, October 19, 2012

New SmartDraw 2013 Adds Mobile and Online Sharing

Now "More than Just Draw," SmartDraw 2013 Creates Everyday Productivity with Smart Visuals and a New Cloud Service, SmartShare, to Help People Get Things Done
SmartDraw Software today announced the launch of its new SmartDraw 2013, which takes the power of visual communication beyond the desktop to the web and any mobile device. It combines "smart" business visuals with mobile access and universal sharing features to help business users work smarter, faster and more effectively.

"We've designed SmartDraw 2013 to be the fast, productive way to keep your entire team organized, on task, and on target to complete any project or objective," said Paul Stannard, SmartDraw CEO. "Our 'smart visuals' let you capture important information and share it instantly with anyone, on any device. This allows you to put information to work wherever you are. Making it easy to connect people and information every day so that your entire organization gets things done is what SmartDraw 2013 is all about."

What is a Smart Visual?

SmartDraw 2013 is not your typical flowcharting or mind-mapping program. The difference is the creation of the "smart visual." It begins with SmartDraw's exclusive automated drawing tools that make it fast and easy for anyone—with or without drawing skill—to create perfectly formatted, eye-catching and intuitive visual graphics. They may be used to illustrate workflows, functions, diagrams, and many other business processes. But smart visuals aren't just pictures—they're real data. Smart visuals enhance meetings and project planning with built-in task assignment, notification and tracking. They also allow the user to add links, notes and attachments to any visual, which can then be shared with anyone—even non-SmartDraw users—on the SmartShare cloud service. Smart visuals make SmartDraw 2013 much more than just a business document drawing tool. It's a suite of business planning, communication and productivity solutions.

Smart Visuals Put Vital Information Just a Click Away

Smart visuals eliminate the time often wasted in tracking down the necessary resources and documents for a project by making it easy to organize, publish and access everything you need in a single, interactive dashboard.

Automated drawing tools in SmartDraw make smart visuals fast and easy to create—just click to add shapes. Drag and drop shapes and they automatically format, perfectly.  Add links to websites or attachments, such as PDF or Office documents. When a user clicks on a smart visual, SmartDraw immediately launches the link or attachment, instantly accessing the desired information.

As Stannard sees it, this is a potential game-changer for businesses. "Think about how much information is out there. But much of it is noise—you need to sift out what is important, without wasting time on what is not. Smart visuals are the perfect vehicle to allow you to capture, process and distribute critical information to anyone you want. I see this as one of those things that in five years, we'll look back and wonder how we got along without it."

Meetings and Project Plans that Produce Results

The same technology that powers smart visuals brings boring, inefficient meetings into the modern era.

SmartDraw's interactive mind maps replace hand-written notes and white boards. Action items and task assignments captured during the meeting can be sent immediately in SmartShare to those responsible. This provides for efficient task tracking, accountability and follow-up. And, unlike a white board, a SmartDraw mind map can be shared with anyone using the SmartShare cloud service. Tasks and action items can be viewed and updated from a web browser or any mobile device. There's even a free SmartShare mobile app for the iPad and iPhone. Updates are automatically reflected in the meeting mind map and shared with the team. Everyone stays in the loop.

"SmartDraw's meeting organization and project planning tools are perfect for keeping everyone up-to-date on team projects," Stannard said. "And with SmartShare, it's also ideal for a virtual meeting, which makes collaboration with outside contractors, service providers and remote team members a snap."

A Presentation So Mobile, You Can Carry It in Your Pocket

SmartDraw 2013 also gives users a choice of solutions for creating and giving presentations. There's the PowerPoint™ builder feature, which lets you build a presentation from any collection of visuals with just a click. If you're on the go, you can elect to save your presentation to SmartShare, where you can access it from the web or your mobile device. "If you want, you can just plug your iPhone into a projector, instead of lugging around a laptop," Stannard states. "You can literally carry a presentation in your pocket or purse."

More than three million business users each year already install and use SmartDraw to communicate more effectively and efficiently with professional-quality visuals made easily. Three editions of SmartDraw offer the just-right feature set to meet any business need with Standard, Business and Enterprise licenses available.

Source: sacbee.com

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Freeplane: Solid Mind Mapping but You May Need a Map

Freeplane's documentation touts the app's goal of maximum ease and speed of use. Maybe the code writers were too familiar with Freeplane's design. The amount of time on task to get up to speed with Freeplane surprised me. Once I adjusted to the conventions that Freeplane uses, I found this app a little easier to use.

Freeplane is an application for creating mind maps. A mind map is the doodling you draw with shapes and other symbols around words connected with lines to make charts representing your thoughts and ideas on a particular topic or project.

It is a bit cumbersome to learn and is less intuitive than other mind-mapping gear I have used. These include VYM (View Your Mind), Semantik and Labyrinth Mind-Mapping.

First, you must get used to graphically thinking through complex ideas in a controlled and confined space on the computer screen. Then you must work through the software conventions to display what you created.

That first step is required with any mind-mapping application you select. The second step is more the result of Freeplane's user interface.

To be clear, Freeplane is a solid mind-mapping tool. It gets the job done just fine. It just makes you work more to do so.

Gummy GUI

Any disappointment I have for Freeplane is rooted in its graphical user interface. I prefer a scheme that lets me click anywhere on the blank canvas and use the keyboard to throw thoughts in awaiting entry fields.

Once I have the words in place, I want to add lines to connect ideas and drag the graphical elements into different shapes and locations on the screen.

That approach should be fluid and not get in the way of the thought process. Freeplane does not do that. Instead, it has too much overhead to wade through in order to create the chart of my thoughts.

Stumbling Blocks

For example, two things got in the way when I started to use Freeplane. The extent to which they slowed me down was annoying.

One is getting the program to select the desired location when importing or inserting a file or image. The file picker's behavior was counter-intuitive. It balked at letting me access external drives or folders on the hard drive that were not directly listed in Freeplane's directory.

The other is Freeplane's inability to resize an image in the workspace by dragging it. It takes too long to drill down a right-click menu to an image property panel in order to manually enter new parameters.

Other mind-mapping tools I have used more closely perform this and other image-manipulating tasks like image editing features in word processors and drawing applications. Instead, Freeplane relies on keyboard shortcuts and a series of buttons to display ideas on the screen.

Powerful Package

Freeplane's documentation touts the app's goal of maximum ease and speed of use. Maybe the code writers were too familiar with Freeplane's design. The amount of time on task to get up to speed with Freeplane surprised me.

Once I adjusted to the conventions that Freeplane uses, I found this app a little easier to use. Freeplane is designed for non-programmers. It is a tool for creating branching diagrams without any professional skill. That target user base should be served with a shorter learning curve.

Freeplane boasts an ability to install packages of scripts, icons, images, language dictionaries for spell checking and other preferences including a different menu structure. Those are advanced features that non-programmers can also use if they have the fortitude to figure out how.

Other Features

One of the more impressive range of features is Freeplane's propensity for exporting. It supports formats for HTML, HXTML in both JavaScript and Clickable Map Image versions, Java Applet and Flash, TASKS and Taskjuggler files, and TWIKI.

You can also export a mind map as PNG and JPEG files as well as an Open Office Document, PDF or SVG files. If you want one project to resume where a previous project ended, you can export a mind map with the Freeplane branch as a new map format.

A feature that I find particularly useful is the text editor panel that you can drag up from the bottom of the app's window. This is much like a mini word processor. You can type content and then format it with font and point sizes, make words bold or italic or underlined. You can also change text color add bullets or numbers.

What It Does

It takes some learning time to master all that Freeplane can do beyond basic idea mapping. For instance, you can enhance the look of a mind map by adding a cloud image to any item. Feel free to display the cloud in any color or size. But the actual cloud shape is hard-wired.

You can click preset buttons in the tool bar rows to unfold or re-folding nodes. Also, click from a drop-down menu to select a variety of icons to enhance the look of the mind map.

You can even add images or local hyperlinks to your mind map. This lets you add the style of a wiki to an otherwise static mindmap image.

Using It

Click on the topic box labeled "New MindMap" to start entering main topics name. Click in the box that appears to enter the topic name.

Next, right-click on the main topic you created. This action opens a context menu that displays several options. Select the New child Node option from the context menu to begin to create spider branches to show secondary levels of thought and beyond.

Clicking the New Child Node menu option adds a sub topic to the main topic. Tool bar buttons also let you add sub topics and sub-sub topics to the main topic.

Another menu option lets you create new sibling nodes. The new sibling node is separate from creating a new child node. This helps you to present an additional degree of separation within nodes.

Read complete at: technewsworld.com

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Five Surprises From Billionaire Paul Allen's Mind Map

Today the cover of Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, is dedicated to a paper that outlines the first findings of the map of the human brain being created by the Allen Institute For Brain Science, the neuroscience Manhattan project being funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The new publication comes out of the Allen Institute’s effort to create a map of which genes are turned on and off in the human brain, a feat the Institute accomplished a half decade ago in the mouse. Already, the mouse map has become a standard tool for neuroscientists, and the hope is that the human brain atlas will be as well. (For more on the institute’s overall effort, see: Inside Paul Allen’s Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain, from the current issue of Forbes magazine.)

An animal’s genes are contained in its DNA, locked in the center of its cells; to access the genetic code, the DNA must be transcribed into a related chemical called RNA, which can take messages to the parts of the cell that make the chemicals that comprise most of the body. The Allen Institute’s atlases are measures of what RNA transcripts are in the cell – this is a bit like monitoring what information is being read off the body’s hard disk.

The Nature paper unveils data from the first two human brains completely analyzed by the Allen Institute, with a bit of analysis from a third. There are several surprises – and it’s not clear what they all mean. “At the moment we’re making descriptions,” says Ed Lein, a neuroscientist who is one of the paper’s co-authors. “A key role for the neuroscience community is to understand how these differences relate to the unique properties of the human brain. ”

  1. Cells in the “thinking” part of the brain look a lot more similar than scientists had expected. The thinking we do, including the experience we have of being us, is generated in the cortex, the most well-developed part of the brain. You might expect, then, that the cortex would be accessing the DNA code in all sorts of different ways. But the Allen Institute researchers found remarkably little difference between one neuron in the cortex and the next. In terms of how they use their genetic hard drives, these cells are very much the same.
  2. Your left brain and right brain are using your DNA in the same way. Another surprising difference: the left and right sides of the brain tend to have different functions. But on the level of gene expression that the atlas measures, these are again hard to detect. The two hemispheres of the brain look very much alike.
  3. The differences that do exist are important. There’s not a lot of genetic variation in the landscape of the brain, but what there is is apparently important. The Allen Institute researchers found that they could accurately predict where a neuron would be in the cortex by what genes it was expressing. So these tiny differences apparently matter. One interesting distinction: the neurons involved in getting sensory impressions, like sight, sound, and touch, are similar to one another and different from the rest of the brain.
  4. The differences are not where you’d expect. When we think of a brain cell (if we think about brain cells at all), we think of neurons, the spindly nerve cells that transmit signals to each other and make up the circuits of our brains and bodies. But there’s another type of cell in the brain, called a glial cell, that creates the sheaths that protect neurons and the matrices in which they sit. And there is more variation in what genes are expressed in the glia than in the regular neurons. That could mean they are more important than we thought, accounting for the differences between people – or it could mean that variation in glial cells doesn’t matter much, so there’s a lot of it.
  5. We are not mice, or monkeys. One of the most important uses of the Allen Atlas will be to figure out how the human brain is different from the brains of the experimental animals scientists can test in their labs. Big drug companies such as Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer have been struggling to create new medicines for diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, largely without success, and the difference between lab mice and people may be one key reason. In one tantalizing clue, the Allen Institute researchers point to differences in a gene called CALB1, which is used to move around calcium ions, which are key chemical messengers for the nervous system. In rhesus macaques and mice, this gene is expressed throughout the hippocampus, the brain region that plays a key role in the creation of memories. But in humans, CALB1 is expressed only in the dentate gyrus, pointing to a potential difference between the brains of these other mammals and ours. It’s not known what this difference means.

Read complete at: forbes.com