Monthly Archives: May 2017

A Better Mind-Mapping App

Mind-mapping, originally understood, is a right-brained way to explore a topic by making a diagram of bubbles and lines and drawings and colors and little pictures on a piece of paper. There are a few applications, notably Buzan’s original iMindMap, that aim to give the same experience on a computer; and there are many more “mind map” applications that are essentially outlining tools that display the outline as a graphical map rather than as a list of indented topics.

I’ve been using the latter kind of tool for many years. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts, to keep notes, to plan documents, and like that, and the 2D graphical layout means that you can get much more content onto a single screen than you can with a traditional outliner.

I first used FreeMind, which is a great little tool with a somewhat peculiar user interface that takes some getting used to. It’s free, available on all platforms, and doesn’t seem entirely at home on any of them; and it’s clear from both the app and the website that visual design isn’t the FreeMind team’s strong point.

Some years ago the FreePlane project split off from FreeMind, with the explicit intent of improving the user experience while keeping the same capabilities. I switched to FreePlane and used it for quite awhile, but eventually got discontented. As I recall the team kept changing things in ways I didn’t like, but the main thing was one particular setting I hated.

One of the things you can do in most mind mapping tools is control the appearance of the arcs between your topic bubbles: curved vs. straight, wide vs. narrow, and color. The idea is that you assign meanings to different colors and appearances, and use them to make your mind map communicate better.

FreePlane decided to add a mode where the app assigns different colors to the arcs all on its own, apparently just to make the mind map more colorful. They made the mode the default for all new mind maps. They didn’t add it to the normal preferences, so that every time I created a mind map I had to turn the damn thing off. Trivial, I know, but I got tired of it, and went looking for a replacement.

I went back to FreeMind for a short while, and ended up using XMind, an app about which I am deeply conflicted. It’s the most advanced mind mapping tool I’ve used, and has all kinds of fancy capabilities—most of which I don’t care about, and will never use. There’s a lot about it I dislike.

  • It supports a wide variety of layouts for mind maps, all of which you can apply on the fly. I basically like only one of them.
  • It allows you to attach icons to your topics, and has a nice set of them; but it draws them smaller than the other tools I’ve used, and the icons themselves aren’t designed to be easily distinguishable at small sizes—at least, not to my eyes. And some icons I’m used to using in other tools are simply missing.
  • The GUI layout in XMind 7 is highly configurable; there are a number of panes, and you can arrange them pretty much as you like. I’d found a configuration that worked really well for me. The new XMind 8 isn’t nearly as configurable, and I can no longer set things up the way I like.

Compare the image at the top of this post, which is of a FreeMind window. It clearly indicates that I find iMindMap to be too expensive, that Worksheets are an important thing, that I’ve chosen to use XMind, and that I’m not entirely happy about it. The topics are all more or less the same size: there’s no wasted space. Now, contrast that with the following image:

Note that the central topic is the biggest thing; it’s also the least interesting, and takes up far too much space. Note that there’s no big red X on iMindMap; there’s no good replacement for that in XMind’s icon set. Similarly, there’s no exclamation point icon on “Worksheets”. The checkmark on XMind is much harder to distinguish than that in the FreeMind shot, and the crying emoji is really no replacement for the sad face in the.

Worksheets are the one feature that give XMind an edge over other tools. If you’ve used Excel, you’ll know what I mean: a single Excel document can contain multiple spreadsheets, accessible by a row of tabs along the bottom margin. XMind is the same: I can create an XMind document for a project, and that document can contain multiple mind maps. I can have a mind map for the project schedule, and another as a to do list, and another for brainstorming problems, and others for particular issues. These days I’m often working multiple projects simultaneously, and it’s a real help to be able to open one document and have everything at my fingertips.

FreeMind? FreePlane? Can you get with the program and give me worksheets? I’d be most grateful.

Interview: Julie Davis on Jesus and Dracula

I did an interview with Julie Davis about her new book, Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life, a couple of weeks ago; it was published at Aleteia, and I just realized that I forgot to post it here. Among other things, she talks about what she learned about Jesus from Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

During that time I reached the point of the book where Mina is attacked and corrupted by Dracula, so much so that the touch of the Eucharist on her forehead leaves a red scar. The group of friends now have a constant visual reminder of the result of their bad choices. They take up their task to release Mina and the world of this evil, or die trying, and they do it full of hope and enduring personal suffering. They are following in Christ’s footsteps and doing the opposite of Dracula’s anti-Christ methods. They give of themselves without stinting through love of the other.

But you can go read the whole thing.

Running After Very Truly Run After

Some while back I said that I’d finished my next book, Very Truly Run After…and then I sent it off to Julie and discovered that I hadn’t.

Most authors have first readers. My process is a little different. As I’m writing the book, I read the new material to my wife Jane and my friend Ian. Reading it aloud is immensely helpful: prose that doesn’t flow sticks out and begs to be repaired, and anything that simply doesn’t work gets caught pretty quickly. But on the other hand, that means that Jane and Ian hear the story over a long period of time, and they aren’t likely to catch problems that are evident during a more normal reading.

By the time I finish the first draft I’ve got a list of small things to fix; and so I go back over the whole thing, fixing the problems and checking for typos, continuity errors, and bad phrasing. And then I’m “done”: I’ve done everything I know to do. And that’s when I send it off to Julie.

And then Julie started diffidently asking me questions. What about this? And that? I didn’t buy this part of it. And that second act drags something awful. Oh, and I liked this and this and this.

There are two ways to respond to this kind of criticism: you can get your knickers in a twist, or (if you trust the critic) you can set out to improve the book and deal with the problems. Now me, I’m a software engineer by profession. I expect feedback on my software. I expect users to tell me what works and what doesn’t work. I expect the testers to do their darnedest to break things. I don’t simply expect it; I rely on it.

So I took Julie’s feedback, and I looked things over, and gosh, she was right. All through the second act, whenever there was an opportunity to amp up the tension I preemptively figured out why everything was going to be OK, and put that in the text. To put it another way, as the plot unfolded I was more or less inserting big flashing neon signs saying, “Nothing to see here! Carry on with your reading, nothing bad is going to happen!” Because, you know, I like my characters, and hate to see them abused. Which might be charitable on my part, but doesn’t make for a good story.

So I’ve spent another two months making things better; and now I’m waiting to see how I did. I can’t wait to learn how it all comes out.

photo credit: By Gleeson, Joseph M. (Joseph Michael), (1861- )? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pedant Errant: Beauty and the Beast

A little something I wrote back in 2002.

As everyone with children already knows, Disney has just released Beauty and the Beast on DVD. My kids had never seen it, and as it truly was the great musical (animated or otherwise) of its day Jane nabbed a copy the next time she visited Costco. We watched it over a couple of nights, breaking just after the stunning “Be Our Guest” sequence, and a good time was had by all. It was better than I remembered, and actually deserves most of the hoopla.

But then I got to thinking–it’s a chronic problem I have–that the story as presented simply doesn’t make sense. I’ll grant you the basic premise: the prince is an arrogant, inhospitable, bad-tempered swine; he refuses shelter to an ugly old woman; the woman turns out to be a beautiful enchantress and casts a spell on him, making his poor character manifest to all. I’ll even buy the time limit on breaking the spell, though it serves no real purpose but to add suspense.

So we’re expected to believe that a prince–a son of the King of France–is turned into a loathsome beast (the members of his household being turned into useful household objects) and nobody in the wider world notices? OK, so the castle’s enchantment includes a spell of forgetting on the surrounding countryside…you’d still think his mother the Queen would notice when he didn’t come home for Christmas. A Prince of the Blood Royal would be one of the leading citizens of France, and his disappearance would leave an unmistakeable chasm in the political landscape.

Well…perhaps this is France way back in the Dark Ages. The prince’s father isn’t really the King of France; he’s just a minor king of a small region. Well and good–but the setting is clearly post-Renaissance. We can tell that from the vast quantities of printed books alone, if the architecture of the Beast’s castle wasn’t a dead giveaway. And then, Belle’s father’s inventions bring it to the verge of the industrial revolution. So this isn’t a tale of the Dark Ages; this is a tale of the days when France was already a major European power.

After that, the incongruities keep piling up. This is France; how come the only ones with French accents are Lumiere and his girlfriend the feather duster? And what are Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts doing in the prince’s service? Unlike anyone else in the movie they are clearly English in name as well as accent. England was, more often than not, the enemy in this period of history.

Where’s the rest of the prince’s household–his secretary, his courtiers, his sycophants and hangers-on, and, for that matter, where are his guards?

When the ugly witch came, what was the prince doing answering his own door? He had servants for that.

Where does all the food come from? Are the villagers still making deliveries? If so, they aren’t admitting it.

Once the spell is broken, what is the prince going to use for candlesticks, teapots, wardrobes, clocks, and feather dusters?

Belle’s father strays into the castle environs by accident on his way to the Fair. How come nobody else from the village was going?

Belle visits the village bookseller. He’s got a sizable shop with lots of books. Who buys them? It’s a very small town; Belle is considered unusual because she’s a woman who reads; the men seem to spend all their time in the tavern swilling beer with Gaston. How come the bookseller hasn’t gone out of business?

And then consider Gaston, the mighty hunter, he who uses antlers in all of his decorating–where on earth is he finding the deer? We’re well into the period in history where any deer in France would be dwelling in the Royal Woods, protected by the Royal Gamekeepers, to be hunted only by the Royal Monarch and his friends and family. Gaston is awfully well-respected in the village for a poacher, especially as the prominent display of antlers all over the tavern might be enough to bring the King’s wrath down on the entire town.

Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere. Clearly the Beast–the Prince that was–is out of favor with his father the King. He’s been banished to a castle in a remote part of France where he can dwell in moderate comfort with a minimum of staff. The greater part of French society has endeavored to forget him entirely; consequently, his rebirth as a Beast goes unremarked. The local villagers notice, of course, and being canny peasants immediately determine to make the best of it. With the Beast in seclusion, there’s nothing to prevent them from taking to themselves as many of the local Royal perquisites as they can grab, the King’s Deer chief among them.

The result is peace and prosperity–wealth, even–for the village. This is evident from the hustle and bustle in the opening scenes of the movie, but even more so from the lack of children. I don’t recall seeing a single person under marriageable age in the entire flick except for Mrs. Potts’ kid Chip. And of course it’s well known that family size is correlated with wealth.

So the villagers are all perfectly familiar with the terms of the enchantment. So no wonder they call Belle’s father crazy when he talks about the Beast–Belle and her father are newcomers, and are outside the Conspiracy of Silence that protects the village’s prosperity. This in turn explains Gaston’s determination to marry a girl who clearly detests him–she’s the only young woman in the village who might see beyond the Beast’s exterior and so break the spell. Once married, she’s no longer a candidate (another incongruity! This is France, after all).

And then, when it becomes clear that the secret is out, Gaston and the villagers seek to solve the problem by killing the Beast once and for all. It doesn’t work, of course; Gaston falls to his death, the other villagers are driven away by the Useful Household Items, Belle announces her love, and the Beast changes back into a (not particularly handsome–didja see the size of his nose?) Prince. Belle weds the Prince, and they live happily ever after.

By themselves, in a castle in a remote part of France, forbidden ever to return to Paris. It’s a good thing Belle likes to read, that’s all I can say.

photo credit: Miguel Angel Prieto Ciudad Calatrava via photopin (license)

At Aleteia: Praying the Luminous Mysteries for Vocations

My latest at Aleteia: Praying the Luminous Mysteries for Vocations:

One Sunday, our pastor asked us to concentrate on praying for vocations the following week. More specifically, he challenged us to pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary for this intention. He went on to propose a set of petitions, one for each mystery, and explained why he’d chosen each one. That was some years ago, but I found his suggestions so compelling that I’ve prayed the Luminous Mysteries with this intention ever since.

Take a look.

photo credit: lacygentlywaftingcurtains What’s Left of the Flag via photopin (license)

Wodehouse and Haggard and Adams, Oh My!

Julie Davis has written a lovely review of my new book, Through Darkest Zymurgia!. You should go read it. (And the book, too!) Here's the money quote:

Through Darkest Zymurgia! is what you'd get if you crossed P.G. Wodehouse with H. Rider Haggard and sprinkled a generous dose of Douglas Adams over the whole.

I'm a little blown away by this. It would never have occurred to me, in any of the publicity for Zymurgia, to compare myself to either Wodehouse or Adams.

The comparison with Haggard is certainly apt; I set out to write a book of exploration and adventure in remote corners of a faux-Victorian fantasy setting, while Haggard wrote about exploration and adventure in remote corners of a real Victorian setting—and let me tell you, if you've not read King Solomon's Mines you should read that immediately after you read Zymurgia. Not that the two books are related in any way, but it's Haggard's best book, and you really should have read it by now.

But Wodehouse and Adams, I'd never have done that, and for several reasons:

  1. I've read a number of books by authors that were billed as the next Adams or Pratchett. They weren't.
  2. I think the book is funny…but then, I would. Whether you'll think it's funny, how can I tell?
  3. Is it as funny as Wodehouse or Adams? That's a really tall order. And then, although I'm quite fond of Wodehouse (the book contains two distinct homages to him) I wasn't trying to write like him; and I'm insufficiently madcap to write like Adams.
  4. I'm an engineer, and I completely lack the marketing gene. I can't perpetrate marketing hyperbole without feeling bad about it.

So there are no references to any of these three on the cover of the book, not even Haggard.

But Julie, on the other hand, isn't me, which is to say that she can be objective—and while her tastes and mine aren't identical, she's an insightful reader and a book reviewer of long standing whose reviews I've learned to trust. If she says my book is what you'd get if you crossed P.G. Wodehouse with H. Rider Haggard and then sprinkled Douglas Adams on top, then that's what it is, and it would be futile to deny it.

I'm glad to have that settled.