Essays

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What FreeMind has to do with Pirsig's Lila

You can only understand the following, if you have read Robert Pirsig's book Lila. If that is the case, do you remember the description of the way how Phaedrus writes things down? There's a lot of talk about random access and about tray slips. And now, I seem to see quite clearly that FreeMind offers you all that what Pirsig's tray slips offer - relatively small chunks, being reorganized, rewritten, moved to attic and retrieved from attic again, moved between different groups, together with a special slip or folder for program, everything accessed directly without need to go sequentially through that what you have already written. Of course, you are the one who chooses how big the chunks are in FreeMind.

Are users of FreeMind way too analytical?

Some people argue that FreeMind encourages an overly analytical approach. I would respond that if you want to build quality software, heal an ill man, find a cure to a disease, or provide people with food, just grooving on things, though maybe pleasant and possibly important too, will not be sufficient on its own. Try to sit under a tree in the lotus position and heal someone that way. You simply don't do it. It's not that there is something wrong with the lotus position, but you have to work with the underlying, analytical and organized form of things too.

In the search of a tree tool

by Daniel Polansky

What can you learn from this? At least that there are many ways of doing things like subtasking, which I have already tried and which can in no way compete with FreeMind. This is not to say that there are no ways which could compete with FreeMind.

In the winter of 2001 it was three months since I entered a new company. In the dynamic environment of the company I had to be very proactive, that is, to know what I want to do, where I am going, what I have already done in which direction and what people I am waiting for in order to complete different small task. I was quite obsessed with the idea that I can solve a task that seems difficult by splitting it into smaller subtasks.

It's not only that I was obsessed with the idea, the idea also worked, of course. However, I have created relatively many subtasks and I needed to keep track of them. My attitude toward improvement of existing software was - I am not going to do any superfluous investment in doing some programming myself. I am going to try to use existing software for that purpose.

I knew that I needed something which could provide the notions of tree and folding. I knew that both ideas were relatively well spread in the user interface around and that I should be able to find something that already does the job.

One of the first ideas that came to mind was using filesystem - file represents leaf node and folder represents node with children. One could browse the tree and fold / unfold using internet explorer. I tried that and found out that it was very slow and inconvenient. For instance, adding a child to a leaf was quite an expensive operation. The searching was also quite slow, the complete operation was simply slow. Also, the sequence of items was not kept, they were automatically sorted alphabetically. This is no surprise as file systems do not keep track of the order of files in folders.

Then I came to the idea of using Emacs folding mode. I have always used this mode when programming and I just loved it. I tried to use it for the purpose, but I found it was too much overhead. I had to keep the depth of the node myself with the number of leading spaces, I had to insert fold marks and so on. I ended up with the feeling that this really was not the thing.

Then I realised that MS Outlook had something like tasks and tried to use its task system. However, I had to keep the tree structure myself. Even more, I only obtained folding by classifying the tasks into categories, that is I got no hierarchical folding. For some time I was running the system. It was nice that I could add colors, for instance. Also, I was using task to represent task, which felt good. But after a short use, I realized that I absolutely need hierarchical folding. Also, moving the folders of tasks around was quite tedious.

I started to search for hierarchical task tool using Google and I really found one - Tamot. I tried to use it, but it was buggy and provided no colors, at least not at the time.

Then I remembered that a friend of mine showed me some kind of tree tool which he was quite exited about - Mind Manager. I downloaded the tool and converted my Outlook tasks to the tool. After having done that, I knew with certainty that that was it - I had the right tool. Moving things around was so easy and intuitive, as well as adding color or folding. The thing was also easy to overview.

There was only one problem - it was not free. Something told me that there must be some free tool for that because there are free tools for everything today. And I found and downloaded FreeMind. At first I was a little bit disappointed. It seemed that there was no way how to move things around, but accidentally I came accross copy and paste. Even though the thing did not look that good as Mind Manager, I felt it would do the very core job I wanted to get done: having tree with folding and relatively easy way to move things around - cut and paste.

When I started to use FreeMind, I was quite happy with it and I started to collect things that irritated me about it; FreeMind was actually very well suited for collecting of such a list of problems. Some of them were just inconveniencies, but some were quite severe drawbacks - like changed order of children of folded node after loading map anew. I promised myself I was by no means going to do any coding myself. But one day I convinced myself to do just a small improvement, which would enable both to follow link and fold node with double click. Once I started with this small improvement, I was lost and ended up with a series of developments to fit FreeMind into my needs and fix many, many small, but annoying errors. I started to add new features that I needed and got lost myself in the development.

Comment by David Friedlander
I too found the need for a "folding tool" essential; I used emacs in outline mode for a long time and for several years I was an avid user of Ecco Pro, http://www.compusol.org/ecco. This was/is an "outliner" like ThinkTank with an ability for shared network use and a flexible categorizing and tagging scheme for items. Ecco Pro was a brilliant tool containing practically every possible organizing tool except the visual tree :-) The program was bought by another company, which killed it as a product -- possibly the best reason why useful software should be GPL'd. Ecco Pro, which can now be downloaded for free, runs only under Windows but for a while there was talk of open sourcing it.

Do not underestimate conventional technology like Microsoft Outlook when using FreeMind

For many purposes, MS Outlook or similar software is just fine. Sometimes it just does not make sense to paste mails into mind map, sometimes, you do not even have to organize your mails in folders, because you can use Outlooks' search functionality, which can also cross folders when necessary. Additionally, you can edit the messages from Outlook after they arrive, emboldening what is important for you, adding comments etc. I have made bad experience with copy-mails-from-outlook-to-freemind pattern. The overhead is too big and the advantages too low. Most importantly for MS Outlook: 1) Use advanced search to search more folders, 2) Edit arrived messages to cut them, embolden what is important for you and add your own comments to messages.

When authoring information, FreeMind is pretty good, but sometimes I just pasted things from Outlook messages and not for much benefit. It may be that Outlook would even be O.K. for database of recipes or I don't know what. I am not going to use Outlook for that, just trying to show you how using FreeMind changes the way you use other applications so that you get what you want without FreeMind.

Conclusion: FreeMind is pretty good general purpose tool, but don't use it for everything.

Comment by violetlight: On the other hand, another option could be to use the Freemind GUI as a front-end to an IMAP back-end, thus browsing the structure of a set of email folders and their contents. The document could come all folded by default and only get more data from the server when a branch was unfolded (like an AJAX app). This would therefore be fairly performant if there wasn't too much in one folder/area (or it was pre-organised by ReceivedDate, FromAddress etc). Just another option that provides a different slant to the "file import" approach. N.B. This is not implemented in the current product, and is only an opportunity for discussion.

Search function gives FreeMind edge over Microsoft Word

One may ask what advantage FreeMind brings as compared to Microsoft Word. One of the advantages is FreeMind's search function. FreeMind has breadth-width search, first looking at topic area titles, then at topic titles, and last into the detail text of topics. This makes it easier to find what you're looking for, or simply to find the part of the map dealing with the given topic. By contrast, Microsoft Word does not look into headings first.

The scope of FreeMind's search is the node selected and its descendants, not the whole map. By contrast, there is no simple way in Microsoft Word to restrict the search to the text under the chosen heading.

That makes using FreeMind as a knowledge base much more convenient than using Microsoft Word.

Someone may want to store all their information in many Microsoft Word documents, and use Google desktop search function to quickly find what they're looking for. This way does not provide breadth-width search or restriction of scope of search either. At least, you get an overview of all document titles (and thus hopefully topics) in which the words were found. As a user, you have to change visual context when going from one document found to another, which adds to your concentration costs.

The value of looking at your information

by Raaron

Setting aside the Outlook vs. FreeMind discussion along with the search discussion, I find the greatest value of FreeMind is the ability to look at all the notes you made to yourself regarding a project at one time. Being able to look at your thoughts on the screen like this has proven very helpful to me. All of the folder-based systems I've ever used put your thoughts at one or more remove from you, either through folder titles or search terms. I find that abstraction to be a hindrance. Here I can simply scan the entries and let my brain make associations between aspects that I would not have thought of otherwise.

I don't think of FreeMind as a search and retrieval tool, or as a storage tool, or even as an activity tool. It is a tool for thinking. The only thing I know of that was at all similar to FreeMind was ThinkTank from the DOS days in the 1980's. ThinkTank was an outlining program, but it had many of the benefits I find now in FreeMind. In fact, I discovered FreeMind as I was looking for some newer incarnation of ThinkTank.

Comparing FreeMind to any standard office software product is unproductive. It is not Outlook, it is not Microsoft Project, it is not a file manager, it is not Google Desktop, and it is not Visio. It is a tool that encourages free association and the spotting of gaps and contraditions in one's thinking and planning. In a word, brainstorming -- but brainstorming with one's own brain over time. Therein lies its uniqueness, to me at least.

Freemind and "Getting Things Done"

If you have read David Allen's "Geting Things Done" [1][2] you might seriously consider using Freemind as your reference source. I use Freemind, Gmail and the paper folder system (as described by David Allen) and people are amazed at how fast I can find answers and how much I remember.

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