Check out the pros and cons of Rationale: an argument mapper for Windows. Conclusion? It’s a nifty addition to any journalist/blogger/critical thinker’s software toolbox.

Chicken and egg, form and function, structure and agency: when I’m writing, I’m pretty certain that in order to be creative, to make something new, I need an argument, a structure, first. Without a sound argument, staring at the screen, blinking in time with MS Word’s cursor, I’m struck by a vast, chin-stroking, procrastinatory, angsty agony. Blinks. Strokes chin. How to start?

Go figure, hippie permissives: for me, mapping out my arguments in geekish detail isn’t so much about control freakery, it’s more about providing the foundation for the spontaneity needed for playing around, for creative thinking.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been using an argument mapper called Rationale to do this. At first click, Rationale doesn’t give the impression of having much to do with creativity. It produces analytical argument maps. It’s about being critical, rational, inductive, deductive, logical, oh my.

Working with Rationale

Starting with Rationale

Rationale works by helping to break down an argument into its component parts. Its aim is to encourage critical thinking. As the argument’s unstated assumptions come more clearly into view, the argument becomes easier to evaluate. It’s a cinch then to hammer the weak spots and, oh yes, concentrate on awing the world with your awesome creativity etc.

Launching Rationale, pausing slightly to ooh-aah over its candy-coloured eye candy, its marshmallow-flavoured GUI, I begin with some gentle brainstorming. Getting key ideas up onto the screen, I want to get an overview of my understanding of the issue, spit out the concepts which string the issue together for me.

Full points to Rationale as a brainstormer. It passes the crucial brainstorm application test: entering data doesn’t lead to any break in focus. A tap on the screen produces a blank item; pressing enter, a new item alongside the first one; pressing insert, a new child item for the last one created.

Outside of Rationale, I tend to dither between two methods for elaborating on brainstorms: outlining and mind mapping. The problem is that if I start outlining before I’ve thought my arguments through, the hierarchical view tends to petrify me. I risk falling into a mental rut, stuck inside one argument, unable to climb out to consider others. The problem with non-hierarchical mind mapping is that my ideas flow too easily. The map can grow into a jungle in which I wander around in circles.

Rationale offers the best of both methods. The map gives an overview of the argument. Meanwhile, the textbox, on the right, containing a text outline of the focussed map with numbered and indented headings, subheadings and points, changing dynamically as the map changes, displays the argument in a more linear way.

Using the Rationale workspace

Clicking on any point in the textbox lights up the relevant part of the map. In a busy page, panning across is a simple task of right clicking and moving the mouse. The mouse wheel zooms in and out of the workspace. As soon as the items spill off the screen, a navigation map opens up. Pressing F8, everything fits in the workspace; F9, the selected map fits the workspace. It’s very easy to use. I’d go as far as to say that Rationale’s navigation is far superior to other mind mappers I’ve tried. And if things are still too busy, I turn the side panels off.

From concepts to arguments

Past brainstorming, Rationale comes into its own. Switching to the reasoning mode, I’m able to refine the map so that instead of showing groups of concepts, it shows a simple argument. Each item is prefaced with “because”. Each item becomes a justification for the claim immediately above it. I don’t know any other mind or concept mapping software which does anything quite like this.

Switching modes in Rationale

Switching to the analysis mode, I’m able to group items together. The argument becomes more complex, more sophisticated. Being critical here is about being creative. I’m open to new ideas; I’m suspending judgement. I’m tightening up concepts and how they connect to each other.

As I move reasons and objections around, I make major changes to the argument. Or, rather, I find major changes happening. It’s quite an organic process, extremely intense and enjoyable. Like taking part in a seminar which suddenly catches on fire.

Evaluating claims in Rationale

Once the argument seems complete, I start to evaluate my claims. I can accept the claim, reject it or leave a question mark: an appropriate symbol appears over the item; the colours change to reflect the change in status. This is extremely powerful: it brings out the subtleties of the argument. While constructing the argument, it shows where thinking is weak, what new evidence is needed. At the end of the session, it points to where further thinking is necessary, the potential areas for new research.

My first evaluation shows that many of my claims are supported by reasons with question marks: while correct in themselves, they have little bearing on the claims above. I rewrite some, junk some. Where points get ambiguous or contentious, I add notes. Where there’s evidence to back up a claim, I add a basis symbol, a way of indicating what kind of evidence is available.

An overview of an argument in Rationale

Rationale helps me realise that I’m quite sceptical about traditional mind mapping, that although I think Buzan-style mind maps are good at giving the big picture view, they take too long to create and can become overly complex. Good perhaps for project management or for remembering a topic, they can’t compete with the clarity of Rationale-like argument maps.

Thanks to Rationale’s quickness, its nimbleness, I’ve only taken around 45 minutes to create and evaluate a map. It’s clearer to me now where I go wrong, where my logic is tired, emotional, liable to slide off its bar stool. Knowing this, thinking about what I need to work on to give my argument greater force, I transfer the argument text over to MS Word.

What’s there not to like?

My big gripe: the evaluation symbols don’t get carried over to the textbox. They can only be exported as part of a map, as a graphic file. I’d like to have the option of taking all my Rationale work as text to MS Word.

I’m not sure if this is such a weakness: while it’s possible to change the background, Rationale offers little else in the way of design options. Colours, fonts, branch thickness: all the design elements are fixed. Since I can’t fiddle with the design, I’m concentrating on thinking through the argument. Which is the point of the exercise. But if I really care about the look of the final map, because, say, I intend using it in a presentation, I have to switch to a more traditional mind mapper.

Other slight gripes: Rationale’s lack of a spell check; moving items around in the analytic mode, the green case has to be deleted manually; there’s no way of linking items; notes can’t belong to two items at the same time; I’d like to be able to save maps as templates.


Argument mapping turns out to be fun. Open Rationale. Jot down a few ideas relating to an issue. Drag and drop them to form groups relating to the issue. Tweak into an argument. Evaluate the argument. Realise your grasp of logic is fuzzy. Follow Rationale’s online tutorials. Reiterate until happy. Copy and paste text into a word processor for polishing.

No agony, just ecstasy. Back at the word processor, with a goodish argument running through my points, I find it easy, well, easier, to figure out the right words.

Publisher: Austhink
Licence: Free to try; to buy: lifetime – $166, annual – $83; educational: lifetime – $41, annual – $20
Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP/Server 2003 with .Net Framework Version 2.0 installed

The public spaces on the internet served as the most important arena for exchange of information on the events yesterday. Almost every news story cited a Facebook or Myspace page or a livejournal entry as a source. The Wikipedia entry and discussion on the event hashed out validity of sources and the semantics of tragedy. And then the jarring cell phone footage on Liveleak was among the realest indicators that this gruesome event had actually happened. The events as documented on the social web became the authority.

… These past two days have made it ever so much more apparent that our social lives on the web are intractable, crucial, and part of the news and the historical record.

Hired by Microsoft to be an “enthusiast evangelist”, to “go out and mingle, bond and touch influential end users and show them all the cool things that Microsoft has to offer”, lifestyle blogger Stephanie Quilao quit after only nine and a half weeks.

It wasn’t just that working for Microsoft made her feel like Martha Stewart trying to fit in at a Star Trek convention — “I wanted to play with style and they wanted to play with robots.”

Comparing Microsoft’s desktop software to the Web 2.0 services available online, Quilao says that Microsoft doesn’t cut it for everyday people:

I created my blog business for less than $100, and it costs me about the price of a pair of nice jeans a month to run beyond my time and energy. I cannot do this with the current MS products or services. And I tried… I can use CSS and be creative in my blog design, and control what is advertised on my space. You can’t do that in Live Spaces. To buy Office 2007 Home edition is $150, and Vista Home Premium is $240. (Buying Vista Basic is really kind of pointless.) With that $150 and $240, many people can use that for more pressing things like health insurance, car insurance, debt elimination, rent, food, or gas…

… what MS has forgotten is that small business owners either left or despise the  Enterprise culture. The last thing they want is something that makes them feel Enterprise-y especially the creative types. When I speak to a group of Pro level bloggers, my passion group, I had nothing much to sell them on. When MS develops something as robust and creative as TypePad, Blogger, or WordPress, then it will be interesting.
Stephanie Quilao, Back in skinny jeans

And it’s not just Quilao. Two other MS workers leaving for vistas new: Microsoft’s top search exec Christopher Payne and yet another enthusiast evangelist — hired way back in mid-February — Michael Gartenberg.

YouTube uses its users to steal from the work of honest artists toiling to create original content, says Viacom as it finally sues YouTube for “massive intentional copyright infringement”:

YouTube is a significant, for-profit organization that has built a lucrative business out of exploiting the devotion of fans to others’ creative works in order to enrich itself and its corporate parent Google. Their business model, which is based on building traffic and selling advertising off of unlicensed content, is clearly illegal and is in obvious conflict with copyright laws. In fact, YouTube’s strategy has been to avoid taking proactive steps to curtail the infringement on its site, thus generating significant traffic and revenues for itself while shifting the entire burden – and high cost – of monitoring YouTube onto the victims of its infringement.
Viacom Press Release

Viacom wants $1 billion in damages and an injunction stopping YouTube from showing any more of its content.

Flip away from the enthusiasms of the Web 2.0/participatory media crowd; the future suddenly loses its shine.

In a paper published last year by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Robert G Picard gives a detailed account of what’s gone wrong with American news journalism:

Many of the challenges of news organization today exist because the professionalism of journalism and journalism education have determined the values and value of the news, commoditized the product, and turned most journalists into relatively interchangeable information factory workers. Average journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. Few journalists encounter skills-related problems changing from one news organization to another and the average journalist is easily replaced by another. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special skills (such as enhanced ability to cover finance, science, and health) are able to command higher wages. Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation.
Robert G Picard, Journalism, Value Creation and the Future of News Organizations
(Google’s cached version; click here for pdf)

Of course, it takes two to dumb news down to its lowest common denominator. Hart Van Denburg, an online news editor in Minneapolis, agreeing with Picard, adds:

Americans treat their news the same way they treat their road trips. They could get off the interstate/internet for five minutes to visit a local diner and meet some local folks and get a sense of whether they’re in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Brooklyn Park, Minn., but they won’t. This is a country wallpapered with tens of thousands of square miles of beige suburbs populated by millions of fearful field mice with no desire to experience anything more unique than a sesame seed out of place on a Big Mac bun. Can we really expect such folks to give a hoot about anything outside their cul-de-sacs?
Hart’s Big Picture, Picard, Sameness, Passion

Steve Bryant only buys (into) media he can do stuff with:

Media is changing from entertainment into utility. Media that can’t be manipulated is almost useless. When I listen to NPR, I wish I could freeze the broadcast and pull a link from the radio, send it to a friend. When I watch TV, same thing. When I go to the movies, same thing. But I can’t. I can only do that online.

Those tiny transactions I make online make a greater imprint on my psyche than any single media event inside a theater — or inside a DVD — could have. It’s simple reward/response psychology. Online, I can track who watches my clips, who reads my posts, who liked my mash-up. The Internet flatters us with attention in a way Hollywood no longer can.
Steve Bryant, Hollywood Reporter

An iPod can hold roughly 10,000 songs. Increase the storage capacity every 13 years, something the size of an iPod could store one year of video in another few years. By 2015, you could store all the music ever produced. By 2019, you could 85 years of video – a lifetime’s worth of video. By 2020, the same sized device could store all the content ever created.
David Eun, Google’s VP of Content Partnerships via

Curious to note that sensitive US indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie — catch them on Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of the colossal Warner Music Group, catch them on the OC, Fox’s top-rating TV drama about the affluent youth of Orange County, CA — ultimately gets its name from sociologist Richard Hoggart, from The Uses of Literacy, his 1957 critique of British popular culture.

In conversation with the once angry young man, now grand old man of British cultural studies, DJ Taylor evaluates Hoggart’s thesis 50 years on — a culture devised by ordinary people for themselves is being stamped out by a mass culture devised by corporations for maximising shareholder profit.