Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Finding Interesting Information on the Web: It's Not Just for Search Engines Anymore

Today, I'm going to take a break from Mindmapping to take a look at an emerging area of technology that I find exciting and believe to be tremendously promising down the road. The related technologies that I'm talking about are related to search engines, but have evolved enough in various directions that they really should not be considered search engines in any traditional sense.
This train of thought started when I read an article in ReadWriteWeb about Ambiently. Ambiently, which is currently in beta, calls itself a discovery engine, as distinguished from a search engine. What Ambiently does is to find web pages that are related to a given page. It is implemented as a bookmarklet. In order to use Ambiently, simply go to their Web site, drag the bookmarklet to your bookmark bar, visit a Web site of interest, and click the bookmarklet. You'll be presented with links to pages that Ambiently believes are related to your original page. At the moment, what you'll find a mixture of expected and unexpected links. The unexpected links are unexpected for one of two reasons:

  • The link doesn't lead you to a page that is related to the original page in any meaningful way, or
  • The link leads you to a page that contains information related to the original page, but in a way that you probably would not have found using obvious search terms with a traditional search engine.
An example of the first case, where a link is not meaningfully related to the original page came when I clicked the bookmarklet while viewing, which is the beta version of FriendFeed. The Ambient page had lots of links to pages about "beta." However, I spoke with the developers, and they are working on it. An example of the more useful case of unexpected results came when I clicked the bookmarklet from the ReadWriteWeb article about Ambiently. There were obviously a number of links to pages that discuss Ambiently, since the original page was about Ambiently. However, there were other links that I found interesting because they discussed other, similar types of application, with the only connection that I could see was that the new page referred to "bookmarklet."
I'd like to give an example of a person that would find this very useful, me. I'm a scientist. Many times I am doing research for a whitepaper or journal article. It is not always clear what search term would provide me with the most fruitful direction to go. Instead of trying a large number of search terms looking for the best one, I just have to go to a page that looks interesting, and let Ambiently do a more general search, and I can see a number of results, hopefully finding one or two that look worthwhile. At some point, I will probably end up feeding a term to a search engine, either at the beginning to find the initial page of interest, later in the process after narrowing down my research direction, or most likely both.

In my view, this idea of looking in a lot of different directions without my having to try a large number of search terms individually, provides a discriminator between a search engine and a discovery engine. Each direction that Ambiently (implicitly) looks does not provide me with a long list of links. It doesn't need to. It is enough that it gives me a peek in each direction, so that I may decide which ones to explore. Once I visit a page linked to by Ambiently, I have (again, implicitly) chosen a direction to explore. From there, I may find that the new page has links to others with useful information, or I could have a search term to feed into a search engine, or I could even let Ambiently discover some new directions for me from this new starting point.

From what I've seen so far, the reviews have been somewhat lukewarm, but I think that there is something much bigger going on here. I am really excited about this technology, partly because of what it can do for me today, but mostly because of the tremendous potential I see for these alternative approaches for finding information on the web.

There are a few other technologies that I do not see as search engines in any traditional sense that I am going to mention, but not discuss in any detail (perhaps some other day).
Primal Fusion, which is currently in alpha, has a concept of "thought networking." Here the process is more iterative, and can build over multiple sessions and multiple searches. You can start with a search topic of a few words. This brings up a tag cloud of "thoughts." These thoughts can be "remembered" or clicked upon to search and retrieve content. The content can be remembered, as well. If your current research is done, you can logoff and go about your life. Then, when you login to Primal Fusion again, your remembered thoughts are still there. You go through the same process as before, adding further thoughts to your memories. These remembered thoughts show how you think about the web. Over time, the thoughts are re-organized, and refined. New thoughts can be generated, providing new insights into your thought process. Once you have done all of your research for a topic, you can generate a Web site about the topic, create a document, or create an RSS feed.

evri, which is in beta, starts out with a more traditional search, but then allows you to navigate through a network of topics/concepts. Infolust, which is in alpha, provides links related to a page, similar to what Ambiently does. However, it appears that Infolust currently only links to Wikipedia articles.

I believe that this is only the beginning of the changes that will be taking place over the next few years regarding the manner in which we explore the web. Feeding a search term into a search engine is powerful thing. I would get very little done today without it. However, as we move forward, it will just be one of many ways in which we find what we want or need on the web

Sunday, April 5, 2009

There Can Only Be One!!! Rules of Engagement for the Mindmap Shootout

After an unexpected hiatus, I am ready to begin the comparison of Mindmapping software. This is how it is going to work. As you might have noticed from my list of software packages, a post covering all of the online mappers would read like the first 200 pages of War and Peace , where all the characters are introduced.

To avoid the War and Peace Syndrome, I will introduce a few mappers per post, showing how they measure up to the evaluation criteria. Once we have seen all of the contenders by themselves, we will compare them head-to-head for each criterion and determine the Best of Class. Then we will do something similar for the other two classes. After all of that is finished, we will determine which of the Best of Class mappers is the Best of Show. The Best of Show will be considered the best of all Mind Mappers, according to my totally unscientific, subjective criteria, and excluding the windows-based and Linux-based packages.

I will introduce the first set of contestants around the middle of the coming week, and continue at a pace of one to two sets of Mindmappers per week until we finish. I figure that we will finish just in time for you to obtain the Best of Show mapper for a loved one for either Christmas or Chanukah, as the case may be.

There is a very good reason for stretching the competition out the way I am. Sensory overload. I don't want to present a few really long posts, with too much info to really absorb. I don't want you to get overloaded and tired of it. For that matter, I don't want me to get overloaded and tired of the competition. Instead I want you to look forward to it, like American Idol , or Lost !

I have another reason for stretching the competition out. The Technology Landscape I see all around us right now is seething with activity. There are so many exciting things happening and so many cool products coming out, that I want to discuss them, and get your feedback on them. Despite the financial turmoil the world is in, these are exciting times for the technology sector. So, expect to see posts about other things tucked in between the competition posts.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

You Too, Can Learn How to Mindmap, Just Like the Pros Do!

This is just a quick note to let you know about an opportunity to take an online mindmapping class for free. Now that I have your attention (free usually does that), I'll tell you a bit about the course. For those of you that are newcomers, or relative newcomers, to mindmapping, this is a Free Interactive Mind Map class, from the folks at To give you an idea of what will be covered in the course, from the class' homepage. You will:

  • Learn what a Mind Map is
  • Learn what a Mind Map is not
  • Learn the Principles of Mind Mapping
  • Learn the Seven Steps in creating a Mind Map
  • Create your first Mind Map
  • Evaluate your knowledge along the way
  • And much more

To get started with the course, go to its homepage, read the instructions on how to enroll, and go do it! I do have a few comments on the course. It is about "Pure Mind Maps," as defined by Tony Buzan. It does not touch upon the "Common Mindmaps" that we spend most of our time on, here. Having said that, it is a very nice presentation of Buzan's Mind Maps, and the concepts covered in the course are useful even for Common Mindmaps. Another caveat is that the folks running this free course also run other, unfree course, and they would very much like you to take them. You are under no obligation from taking the free introductory, and you may even decide you want delve deeper into the way of the Pure Mind Map and take additional classes. It's strictly up to you. I have no connection, paid or otherwise, with the Mind Map Tutor people

One final point. Mindmapping should not be a chore. It should be fun. In many cases, it can take tasks that are a chore, and make them fun. This may be a geeky thing to say, but I have fun with Mindmaps. That's why I'm so excited about them (even though you couldn't tell, because I hide it so well).