In the old days, if you wanted to brainstorm your ideas — and, more importantly, the connections between those ideas — you ended up with huge sheets of paper taped to walls and covered in text, circles, and arrows. Nowadays, you can use software for such tasks, software that enables you to get thoughts down “on screen”, and then connect and organize those ideas in logical, useful ways. The resulting diagram is generally known as a mindmap
for more info).
In the Windows world, the best tool for mindmapping is probably MindManager. It’s nice software, but it’s closed and proprietary, inextricably linked with Windows and Microsoft Office, and costs several hundred dollars. Forget that! There’s a great, free (as in speech and beer) alternative, with open formats, and available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It’s called FreeMind.
You can get FreeMind at http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
. There are binaries for Debian
but if you look around, you can probably find a pre-built binary for your favorite distribution. FreeMind requires Java,
so you need to have a working Java Runtime Environment(JRE)
on your box. The FreeMind web site provides links to working JRE’s as well, a nice touch.
After installing FreeMind, enter freemind on the command-line to open it. You start with a central node representing the overall topic you’re going to map. Double-click on the node and start typing to rename it, say, “Linux distros.” Now add child nodes. You can either right-click on the central node and choose “New Child Node”, or select the central node and then press Insert on your keyboard. A new child node appears to the right of the “Linux distros.” You’re immediately prompted to give it a name. Enter Debian and press Enter.
Add another child node to “Linux distros” by selecting the central node and pressing Insert. Name this one Red Hat and notice how FreeMind places that one on the left side of “Linux distros”. If you add another child to the central node, it will go on the right, with the next one alternating on the left, and so on. If you want to add a child node right next to another child node (instead of alternating on the other side of the central node), right-click on the child node and choose “New Sibling Node”, or select the child node and press Enter. For instance, select “Red Hat”, press Enter, and then rename the new sibling node, which should appear right under “Red Hat”, as SUSE.
You can also give child nodes their own child nodes. Right-click on “Debian” and choose “New Child Node”. Call the new node Ubuntu. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If you want to move nodes, click on the node and look for an oval. Grab that oval with your mouse to move it around. Notice, though, that you can’t drag the node above or below siblings. To change the order of siblings, right-click on the one you wish to move and select “Node Up” or “Node Down”, or select the node and press Control-Up Arrow or Control-Down Arrow, respectively.
Here’s the tricky part: what if you want to move a node from the left side of the central node to the right side? Grab the node and drag it onto the central node. A shaded bar appears showing you which side of the central node is active. When the shaded bar appears on the right half of the central node, remove your finger from your mouse and bam! the node appears on the right side.
There are plenty of other ways to move and even decorate your nodes. Just right-click on nodes and pay attention to your options or read the well-written documentation for FreeMind. Within FreeMind, go to “Help& gt; Documentation” to open the manual in a FreeMind mindmap, of course. Very cool! Alternately, check out the web site, especially the list of “Asked Questions” at http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Asked_Questions
. The Freemind authors have done a great job documenting their application, which is always appreciated by users.
Once your mindmap is complete, you can export it as HTML, XHTML, PNG, JPEG, OpenOffice.org Writer, or even use XSLT to roll your own. Even better, with a little bit of explanation from FreeMind, you can save your work as a clickable Java applet and post it to your web site, allowing users to click and use the mindmap you’ve created. WARNING: You are approaching the highest levels of software awesomeness!
So, how can you use FreeMind? Organize your next software project. Plan out a web site you’re going to create. Keep your to-do list up to date. Explain a complicated process.
Here’s the most interesting usage: presentations. Instead of using software like PowerPoint or even OpenOffice.org Impress, try FreeMind. The problem with most presentation software is that it’s linear: you march from slide to slide in a straight line, and the audience quickly loses the context of a particular slide within the presentation as a whole. With FreeMind, you can expand and contract nodes, but the audience always sees the first tier child nodes, thus always providing your listeners with the context for each particular point. It’s a powerful and effective way to give a presentation.
You wouldn’t be reading Linux Magazine or using Linux if you didn’t have a powerful mind. Now map it with FreeMind!
Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Don’t Click on the Blue E!:Switching to Firefox, is in stores now. You can reach him at