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BrainStorm - a different kind of outliner


"BrainStorm is fast, flexible, forgiving and fun" - one-time outliner user

Roots - work like you think
BrainStorm was invented before the first commercial outliners came on the scene. If you are already an outliner user, you will find both familiarity and difference in BrainStorm. If you are just thinking about which kind of program to use, we hope this document helps you. We should say right from the start that BrainStorm users quite often use both outliners and visual mind-mapping programs as well. In fact, BrainStorm is as happy in a mixed environment as it is as a standalone program. The choice, of course, is yours.

The background to BrainStorm is that it was designed to reflect the way we think. Outliners were originally designed to reflect the way material is organized. Visual mind-mapping tools are superficially different to outliners but structurally, they are the same. Users of both find they are locked in to a rather rigid way of working. The roots of the three types of program have affected their developments since.

Focus - be in control
BrainStorm is designed to be fast and focused, to give the user infinite flexibility when capturing and organizing textual information, whether it is from their heads, from any on-screen document or from a file. The most sound structure is usually the result of refining information, rather than deciding a structure before the information has been gathered. Having said that, you can work in either a structured or unstructured way with BrainStorm. Changing your mind is easy enough.

At all times you are focused on the work at hand, seeing just the current heading and the current list. (Or the current parent and the current children, which is how some refer to them. We do, internally, as it happens.) Many people use Hoist and Collapse in advanced outliners in order to achieve a similar result. The heading provides the context. The entries can be reordered very simply to reflect importance or priority, or even be regrouped and made subsidiary to a new heading.

A very powerful feature of BrainStorm is that it remembers the sequence in which you select entries so when they're moved, they arrive in the sequence they were selected. Our researchers tell us that BrainStorm is the only outliner-type program that offers this re-ordering on the fly. Another very powerful feature is that you can undo your work, including reorganization, to many levels (up to 512,000, if you want) if you make a mistake. This is peace of mind with a big P. Most outlining programs warn that deletion of a branch cannot be undone.

BrainStorm's contextual focus means that you use your brainpower for
the task at hand, not for operating the program or being
distracted by extraneous surrounding information.

This screen shot shows an extract from a BrainStorm user's email to our beta discussion list. He is also something of an authority on outliners. We were discussing outliners and BrainStorm, hence the heading. The heading, incidentally, is part of an action list. This entire page is derived from these discussions and other research on outliners. The chevron icons to the left of two entries show that they also occur elsewhere in the model.

Free-form - work the way you want
Any entry can be a heading of another list. Any entry can be as big as you want but, typically, it would be a paragraph. Some poets or musicians might put a whole verse in an entry. This is easy enough (use Shift+Enter instead of Enter). Unlike outliners, there is no concept of headings and notes, all entries (apart from the overall Title) are equal. This makes grabbing information from external sources a breeze. BrainStorm provides a variety of methods, but the best is probably Magic paste. This grabs the textual content of the clipboard whenever it changes. Browse the Web, select what you want and press Ctrl+c. You can sort it all out later when you return to BrainStorm.

Any entry which has lower level entries has an = sign on its icon. Any without have a plain -. When selected, either of these acquires an up-facing arrow to show that another click will move them to the heading, revealing their own list of entries. The heading, when selected, acquires a downward facing arrow to show that another click will move it back into the body. Usually people will double click or use the Home and End keys to navigate up and down the hierarchy.

organization - organize and reorganize easily
You can have multiple windows open on the same model, facilitating drag and drop rearrangement of entries. You can also use cut and paste and BrainStorm's powerful Throw and Retrieve commands. Many refinements of the basic drag and drop theme help you arrange and rearrange material as your work and your understanding of your subject matter evolve. You could elect to have an outline view of your work on display in one of these windows. In fact this is more like Fold in an conventional outline because each entry is shown on a single line.

Content - capture almost anything
Because BrainStorm is content-agnostic, you can throw everything bar the kitchen sink into it. Diary, to-do lists, project information, articles, white papers - all can be absorbed readily. Some people treat BrainStorm as a free-form database of their life, including contact names and telephone numbers, details of conversations and so on. BrainStorm models can be easily merged together and, in fact, BrainStorm will have an intelligent stab at understanding any external file. (By the way, you may pick up a free Diary generator program from BrainStorm's Download page. It generates either a BrainStorm file or a tabbed outline file.)

Links - identical entries are linked automatically
Advanced outliners have clones, BrainStorm has ‘namesakes'. BrainStorm senses when an identical entry has been made and links it automatically to the pre-existing entry, inheriting all its sub-levels, unless you elect to turn it off. Thus, you could have a person's name, with all their details at lower levels. As soon as you use this person's name in any other context, all the existing information is at your fingertips. If you want it. The left and right arrow keys move you from one namesake to another.

What it doesn't do - BrainStorm avoids some things on purpose
BrainStorm does not use tagging, keywords, indexing, or columns. It uses the fastest and most direct means to finding and linking: a lightning fast find command and the automatic linking of namesakes. Neither interrupts your flow, a key aspect to BrainStorm's design. Here's just one example of the usefulness of namesakes: when Marck and David work on BrainStorm development, they send their progress reports to each other as BrainStorm models. Typically, they put their initials and a date above each update. Because these entries are all connected as namesakes, skipping through the latest updates is fast and simple.

BrainStorm does not embed multimedia objects. It does have an HTML publish function which will associate normal HTML tags (eg <img src=...) with the outside world. In fact it has two HTML publishing commands, one outputs a simple HTML file which can be read by many other programs. The other is a more complex affair which includes an embedded JavaScript ‘mind-reader' element. This enables anyone to view your BrainStorm thought model, in the way you conceived it. Almost three dimensional, because it is a hierarchy of information, with cross-links created by the namesakes.

You could visualize a BrainStorm model hierarchy as a Christmas tree
with the namesakes being represented by tinsel or fairy lights
connecting different branches together.

BrainStorm does not lend itself to the creation of columns or matrices. We mention this in case it is essential to your work. It is possible, with a small amount of thought, to create a similar effect, but if it is central to your needs we would suggest you look elsewhere. Or buy both programs! In this area of organization, sorting is often mentioned. BrainStorm has both ascending and descending sorts of the current selection or the current list.

By now, you will have noticed that BrainStorm is focused on gathering and organizing textual information. It makes few concessions to presentation, because we believe that this requires entirely different skills and a different treatment of the content. It also moves the focus away from the subject matter and towards its presentation. BrainStorm does, however make use of fonts and colors at the model level, and individual colors at the entry level. This is all under user control. colors are not automatically associated with levels, although it is possible to color an entire level with a couple of keystrokes and clicks of the mouse.

Working with other programs - continue your work elsewhere
BrainStorm outlines can be written to the clipboard or to a file, indented with spaces or tabs. In fact, selected entries or those containing certain text can be output, to any number of levels. These can be understood by a variety of programs, including Natara's Bonsai outliner for the Palm and Freemind, the free Java-based graphical mind-mapper. HTML publishing, mentioned above, makes BrainStorm models usable and viewable in other applications. A Microsoft Word .dot template is also provided for easy transformation of BrainStorm models into a Word outline (Write to clipboard, paste and run the transform macro.) Finally, BrainStorm lends itself to the output of PowerPoint compatible outlines.

Speed, power and simplicity - Accelerate your work and do it better
BrainStorm makes life as simple as possible for the user, allowing them to think and plan without the distraction of worrying about the program. All you need for navigation are the up/down, left/right and home/end keys. Magic paste, Find and Aerial view probably complete the basic set for gathering and navigating your information. When you pause to reflect, BrainStorm provides scores of powerful commands (and mnemonic keyboard shortcuts) for working with your gathered material.