I loves me some new ways to explore large pools of frequently-updated information. (Dear ThinkGeek, please slap that on a t-shirt. Love, Tara.) A play I found recently is WikiMindMap, at http://www.wikimindmap.org/ .
Basically you start by entering a search — I found general works better — and WikiMindMap will start plotting out all the different ways your search can go. Unfortunately I started with the search cows and got some really bizarre entry about how cows were invented and sent back in time to work in bullet factories in 1775.
After I stopped laughing I did another search — this time for coffee and got a much more prosaic response. A “mindmap” — one of those diagrams that starts with a central idea and then sort of runs off in all directions — appears. Some parts of the mindmap are single concepts, while some are additional categories that you can expand. The coffee search included concepts like Persian and Ethiopia, and additional categories of information like History, Cultivation, and Economics. Hold your mouse over a category part of the mindmap to see an extract from Wikipedia. (Note you also have the option to zoom in on the WikiMindMap. If you do that you might not be able to see that window that appears on mouseover.)
Clicking on the green icon next to a concept recenters the map so you can start over again with exploring another topic. You can also move the map around by clicking and dragging; once a few categories have been opened, maps get pretty extensive.
I picked a topic I know very little about (plasma TVs) and did some mapping to see how much I could learn. I don’t know if I got much more educated than I would have going straight to Wikipedia. I DID notice that the mapping application immediately gave me a head start on the proper vocabulary, which would be a great help if I did additional Web searching.
I tried searching for famous people with the same idea in mind, and out of three people (Sun Pin, Carl Von Clausewitz, and Jimmy Carter — sorry, I have rather an odd stack of books on the desk at the moment) only one name generated enough information to be useful (Jimmy Carter). But that search brought up a lot of keywords that might be interesting to use in an associate search, like stagflation and Camp David Accords.
Nice tool. The only thing I’d like to see is an easy way to grab a screen shot and e-mail it somewhere (from within the site)…