The Brain

Very interesting GUI PIM. Like a mindmap, but changes focus on the fly to center current node and show only 1-2 levels of parents and children. Can do lots of other stuff too. Intended to scale to thousands of nodes, with fat/fast client making traversal feel natural (which you can't say about Wiki). On the other hand, there's less likelihood of any given node actually containing a sizable chunk of original content. The associations are the content.

But it's patented, and has no open file format, etc.

Jerry Michalski is the premier Brain user. He has 31,000 nodes in his Brain (30,710 in Jan'2002), and will get frozen when he exceeds 32k, due to an address limitation in the software. The developer will try a hack that will double his headroom. Would he do the same for the rest of us? Jerry used to publish his Brain online through a sharing server they ran, but that's been unplugged. (Update: see [[Jerry's Brain].)

  • Mar'2004 update: 52k nodes!
  • Jun'2010 update: 131k nodes!
  • Jun'2020: 425k nodes!

I'd love a Brain or Mind Mapping interface to a wiki. (At the very least for quick new-node creation, which could be filled in directly in the wiki later. See WikiGraph Browser and Wiki Page As Mind Map.)

Here are some replies Jerry Michalski made to questions I had about his use of The Brain (Jan29'02):

OK, any of you who thought I might pass up the opportunity to answer this, pay up now :)

Hey Jerry, have you ever written anything about your use of The Brain?

Nope. I have an unfinished draft Website in NetObjects Fusion on my laptop that does explain quite a bit, but I've never finished it enough to write over the venerable "coming soon" site.

Can you give us a list of the nodes you've added/changed recently?

The Brain has a function that lets you see which thoughts you have visited lately, created lately, etc. Most recently created thoughts include:

  • A Word file into which I typed two days of notes at the IBM mobile computing advisory meeting in Santa Barbara. I mailed the note to my IBM host afterward.

  • Virtuous Circles (opposite Vicious Cycles :) (I put opposites across from each other often)

  • Two-Way Browsers

  • The Slate Cartoon Index by Cagle (thanks to Tim Bajarin, who was sitting next to me at the IBM meeting)

  • A bunch of mobile tech companies I reviewed as part of a vote for the Mobile Insights conference.


  • Els Quatre Gats, a Barcelona cafe where Picasso and others used to hang out

  • The Recording Artists Coalition

  • The Junto meeting protocol, by Ben Franklin, courtesy of Edward Vielmetti's vacuum list

  • Blogger Pro (go, Ev!)

  • Links to Bob Frankston and Peter Kaminski's Retreat pix

  •, a site that helps you find WiFi wherever you are

  • Wheel of Zeus (WOZ), Steve Wozniak's new GPS startup

That's just a taste. I really wish The Brain had a function that let me publish new thoughts to a list anyone could subscribe to. I also wish The Brain still had its server up, so I could publsh my Brain contents, but alas...

Also, I'm about to run outta Brain thought space. Current count: 30,710; max thoughts: 32,767. Ouch!

Are most of your nodes write-once-read-never? If you actually read your own stuff, how do you most often find it? Search for a starting point then follow links?

Read my own stuff all the time. I'm always Gardening it, improving things that are disorganized. If I have trouble finding something I know is in there, I fix the problem before leaving the thought by remembering the first word I used to look for it, then linking to it. My search time for just about anything in my Brain is under ten seconds, with no brute-force search or traipsing down folder hierarchies. My naming scheme is also solid. Few duplicates and usually easy names to remember.

Do you figure out the "right" place to put a new node before you start it, or do you have a temporary dumping ground of new nodes which you go back and attach later?

Yes, I quickly figure out which category a thought falls into, or where it might hang off other categories. It's easy to reconfigure thoughts, so it's not a big deal to put something in the wrong place, but it's so much easier to put it in the right place, and it gives such pleasure (really) to see a section make sense, or better - to figure some pattern out and manifest it in the Brain. For example, I have a thought called "types" that I put in when I realized that I had Types of Writing, Types of Insurance, Types of Marketing, Types of Human Activity, etc. Now they're all connected. I also created a thought called Enumerated Wisdom, under which you'll find Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, Gatto's Six-Lesson Schoolteacher (or Seven), the Five Stages of Grief, the 95 Cluetrain Theses (of course!), Martin Luther's 95 theses (worth a read!), the 6 Rashi Rule Classes (thanks, Adina!) and much, much more. See the value now?

What % of your nodes have any content beyond the name itself?

Some 1/3 have no link attached. They are just category names or otherwise structurally important, but they hold neither commentary nor a link to the outside. The other 2/3 all have links to Web pages or documents on my PC (yes, I use The Brain instead of Windows Explorer all the time; much easier). Few thoughts have my text notes in them. I do note company acquisitions, name changes, etc., so I can look back later. And I have a little editorial under "problem markets" thoughts, such as "the problem with Complexity Theory." I do a lot of editorial by naming thoughts (e.g., "Skeptical of...")

Do you worry about a node's content becoming obsolete?

I used to, until I made a remarkable discovery: There is no part of my Brain that I think of as lost territory. That is, I have no "dark forest" of thoughts that I don't go into. There are areas I discover after a long time and they need updating, but doing so is a pleasure, and then the sections are good. I'm pretty careful about adding thoughts, which helps fight obsolescence.

Maybe this is just like gardening, and I'm an enthusiast gardener. But this is a garden of abstract thoughts.

Do you worry about similar nodes being inconsistent because you wrote them at different times?

I occasionally discover I've made two similar things at different times. Then, with delight, I blend them together. It doesn't happen often.

I see my Brain as a holder of all relationships at one time, instead of an Essay, which can present a few relationships at one time. So my Brain is a big state machine, or my memory aid, or some other metaphor, but it offers a huge glimpse into what I know and care about. Jason Calacanis wrote me something neat after spending some time on his own meandering my Brain online. He said that he felt he had learned things about me in ten minutes of browsing there that he might never have learned in several hours' conversation (he pointed to the thought "Things Dad Taught Me."

Thank you immensely for the thoughtful questions, Bill.

(Postscript: in a follow-up, Jerry noted that he does all his writing in MsWord. He refers to his Brain, but doesn't make a new node to represent his working document and attach planned thought nodes to it.)

Closed discussion (not including anyone from The Brain) about ideas for an Open strategy for them:

Should probably focus on Open Format, not Open Source - let other Data Store-s use their GUI, think of themselves as a generic Graph Drawing Object Browser.

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