Quick Tinderbox 6 highlight – Adornment Table

[July 8, 2014: Updated with a quick "how to" screen capture at the end.]

I just uncovered another great little feature inherent to Tinderbox 6. You can now add columns and rows to a map adornment.

Add rows and columns to an adornment in Tinderbox 6 so you can make a nice clean table of your notes.

Add rows and columns to an adornment in Tinderbox 6 so you can make a nice clean table of your notes.

An adornment is a background feature of maps in Tinderbox, which allow you to fence off or corral specific notes. I was just trying to work out what note-management systems are truly cross-platform. So far I’ve come up with four (note the empty sixth row, just waiting for another entry — please suggest). Anyway, this isn’t an earth shaking feature, but it sure feels handy.

To see more posts about Tinderbox, check in on my Tinderbox index page.


Here’s how to access the grid properties for an adornment:

To add a grid to your adornment, first select the adornment. This will show the little grid icon. Click that and the Grid Properties dialog opens.

To add a grid to your adornment, first select the adornment. This will show the little grid icon. Click that and the Grid Properties dialog opens.

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Great resource for getting the hang of Tinderbox

This is just a quick post to direct interested readers to Tinderbox guru Mark Anderson’s series of informational screen captures (using the terrific Clarify app) to help people learn Tinderbox. Check it out here.

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Quick Tinderbox 6 highlight – Chart View

I have not been able to write about Tinderbox 6 primarily because I have not had the time to really immerse myself in the upgrade to feel comfortable with a long or detailed discussion. However, there is one new feature that caught my attention, and about which I am very intrigued. The new Chart View shows your notes in a horizontal outline format, similar to the way Ginko or Tree perform. Here are a couple of screenshots to demonstrate what I mean:

Tinderbox 6 outline view.

Tinderbox 6 outline view.

A close-up detail of a section of Tinderbox 6 in chart view.

A close-up detail of a section of Tinderbox 6 in chart view.

With Tinderbox 6 you now can work in a single window, with access to various open views via the tabs along the top. You can see how I’ve switched between the standard outline view and the chart view of the same document using the tabs. The first screenshot shows Tinderbox’s more standard outline view. The second screenshot shows the same outline in chart view. Note the little disclosure triangles. Click them to show the child notes. Click the circles to hide child notes. (I’ve noticed a few minor glitches in chart view, which I expect to be ironed out in the near future.)

This, of course, is just the very tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to uncover in Tinderbox 6, and I hope to get there one of these days when I have the time to really concentrate on it.

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Some thoughts about FoldingText

FoldingText is a plain text productivity tool with some muscle.

FoldingText is a plain text productivity tool with some muscle.

FoldingText is an innovative text editor for Mac created by Jesse Grosjean of Hog Bay Software. It is kind of a mashup between a markdown editor and an outliner, with a few other functions mixed in. It has several interesting and even tantalizing features, but also some significant limitations.

[See new addendum at the end of this post.]

[June 17, 2014 update: See Rob Trew's comment and my reply for information on how to fold and hide lists in FoldingText.]

Reminiscent of GrandView

If you’ve followed my writing about outliners much, you may recall that I am a huge fan of a defunct DOS outliner called GrandView, which remains the best piece of software I’ve ever used, even two decades after it was abandoned and never ported to Windows.

One of the things I liked about GV is the remarkable flexibility in how you can view your documents:

  • View just the headings in your outline
  • View the headings with the associated text in one window
  • View some of the headings without text and some with
  • Focus in on just the text of a single heading

This flexibility allows you to zoom in for focussed work on a specific topic or to zoom out for seeing the big picture, which I think is essential for crisp, clear writing.

FoldingText's ability to focus in on a topic with its associated text is reminiscent of GrandView for DOS.

FoldingText’s ability to focus in on a topic with its associated text is reminiscent of GrandView for DOS.

FoldingText gives you this same flexibility, albeit in a stripped down package. There were many other features in GrandView not present in FoldingText.

So how does it work?

With FoldingText you use markdown to establish a heading, starting the line with one or more hashtags. The fewer the hashtags, the higher up in the hierarchy is the heading.

FoldingText then adds a little magic to these symbols. Click on them and you can hide any lower-level material including the text associated with that heading. For instance, in the screenshot below, I had clicked on the two hashtags leading the heading “So how does it work?” and the paragraph disappears. If this heading had child headings, they too would be hidden.

Click the hashtags again, or the boxed-ellipses at the end of the heading to reveal the hidden material.

The focussed mode can be accessed by selecting FOCUS from the VIEW menu.

You can hide or reveal text and child headings by click on the hashtags.

You can hide or reveal text and child headings by click on the hashtags.

You can add ordered an unordered lists the same way you do in most markdown enabled editors:

  1. starting a line with a number for ordered lists
  • with a hyphen for unordered lists.

You can also add bold face and italic formatting with typical markdown (wrapping text in “**” for bold and “_” for italic. When you add those markers to the text, you see them as long as your cursor is within the affected text. When you move the cursor off the text, the markers hide and you just see the formatted text. Same is true of the list markers. I like that behavior, because I find markdown in the text to be distracting.

As an outliner

Other behavior that emulates an outliner includes the ability to move items in, out, up, and down using the arrow keys in combination with CONTROL and OPTION. Child headings are retained when you move a parent heading.

While behaving a lot like an outliner (folding, hoisting, reorganizing in branches), FoldingText isn’t really practical for heavy-duty outlining tasks due to the fact that headings are not indented. In fact, because you designate a heading’s level by the number of hashtags at the start, you end up with a kind of reverse indenting, or outdenting, as depicted below:

Hashtags denote the level of the heading. The more hashtags, the lower the level.

Hashtags denote the level of the heading. The more hashtags, the lower the level.

This paradigm works okay for shallow hierarchies, but gets cumbersome and confusing with deep levels and lots of headings. Although you can get a clearer, indented view of your headings via the FOCUS HEADING command under the VIEW menu (see screenshot below).

To get a visual outline for your document, you can select "Focus Heading" from the VIEW menu, which also allows you to navigate to a focussed view of any selected heading.

To get a visual outline for your document, you can select “Focus Heading” from the VIEW menu, which also allows you to navigate to a focussed view of any selected heading.

Add tags to categorize your information

A tag is any text following the “@” symbol.

The value of tagging in FoldingText is that through a process called “Node Paths,” you can filter out all non-related material when you click on the grayed out tag.

Clicking on a tag (any text following an @ sign) filters your document so you see just those items with that tag.

Clicking on a tag (any text following an @ sign) filters your document so you see just those items with that tag.

To do list ala Modes

FoldingText also provides a funky little functionality called “modes.” Right now there are just two modes, but I believe more are planned. Here is an example:

The .todo mode allows you to build dynamic checklists in FoldingText.

The .todo mode allows you to build dynamic checklists in FoldingText.

Just add the .todo extension to the end of a line introducing a checklist, then create an unordered list (i.e. start the line with a hyphen) and FoldingText automatically changes the hyphen to a checkbox. As you can see from the example above, when you check off an item, the done tag is added with the date as the value.

The other mode is timer, (.timer) which adds the time for each subsequent item in the list and tallies the total time.

While I can see how the .todo mode could be useful, .timer mode just seems weird to me. I’m not saying it couldn’t be useful, just that if feels out of place in this app. That might just be me.

Exporting your work

One of my complaints about version 1.0 of FoldingText was the limited options for exporting my work. Now I wonder if I just missed that function, because it is available in version 2.0, just not in the place you would normally check. To export your FoldingText document in RFT or HTML formats, you select it (or the parts you want), then select the appropriate format under EDIT> COPY menus. This works quite nicely as you can see from my HTML export into WordPress.

What to make of FoldingText?

I don’t know if I’ll ever use FoldingText seriously or extensively. It is addictive and fun. And its uncluttered interface is very appealing. But is it powerful enough to take on serious jobs? What niche will it fill in the crowded productivity software world? If there are other, more powerful applications that do the same things (and there are), why would I choose FoldingText?

Sadly, I don’t feel a whole lot closer to answering those questions. There are people for whom FoldingText’s balance of ultimate simplicity with just the right amount of power features will be appealing. Others will look to a range of more powerful applications.

One factor that is a serious limitation, I think, is the lack of a tablet app counterpart. Most people want to be able to do this kind of work on their iPad or even iPhone. Jesse Grosjean abandoned his iPad apps a few months ago, making them open source, so I would not hold my breath waiting for the FT for iOS.

I’m going to continue to play around with FoldingText and see if it grows into an important software tool. If it does, I’ll be sure to write more about it.

[Late addition on June 8]

Further thoughts on FoldingText

If FoldingText is going to be a productive environment for me, it will have to be as the front end of a work flow. It could be a good place to take notes at a meeting, hash out a plan or a story plot, write a blog posting. But then the content has to go somewhere else. Because FoldingText does not provide any solution for managing your collective documents or mining those documents for information or relating that information across documents.

I could, I suppose, keep all my information in FT (don’t know if it has a practical limit on file size) sort of the way Workflowy or Cotton Notes are intended to work. But it really isn’t built that way. Navigating a very long FT document would be quite cumbersome. I could use the tag system to add bookmarks for finding my way deep into my information, but that doesn’t feel very efficient.

What would be an ideal set up is having the functionality of FoldingText available in the editor of a full-fledged note manager like Evernote or DevonThink. And it would be killer cool in a journal app like DayOne.

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Tinderbox 6 now available

Got an e-mail announcement today from Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems announcing the availability of version 6 of Tinderbox:

Tinderbox Six is the largest and most significant update, ever. Each facet of the program has been re-imagined and re-implemented: text is gorgeous, maps are beautiful, outlines are buttery smooth, and agents never make you wait while they work. There’s an entirely new view, the Attribute Browser, that you’re going to love. There’s built-in support for maps and ISBNs, for Twitter and speech and for notifications.

In fact, there’s too much news to explain it all here. There will be a new space in The Tinderbox Forum just for your Tinderbox Six Questions. We’ll be writing again next week with some highlights, but as you explore Tinderbox Six, you’ll find dozens of new features that make Tinderbox easier and more powerful to use.

I’ve been tinkering with Tinderbox 6 for the past few weeks, as I broke down to get one of the “backstage passes” that gave me early access to the new version. However, I’ve been too busy to put it to much of a test, but I hope to soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a teaser screenshot of the new interface:

Tinderbox 6 has a whole new look and way of dealing with maps and outlines.

Tinderbox 6 has a whole new look and way of dealing with maps and outlines.

You can download a demo, but as I write this the Tinderbox website does not seem to be completely updated with information about the new version. And here is a link to information about the new features.

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That was short-lived! My Office 365 experiment.

I’ve been a long time fan of Microsoft OneNote, getting my copy when it first came out in 2003 and upgrading through OneNote 2010. But since I switched to Macs for my personal use, I had more or less stopped using OneNote for much, even on my office Windows PC. When Microsoft released a version for Mac, I was initially excited and then quickly skeptical.

But I remained intrigued by the possibility of having OneNote not only on my PC and Mac, but also my iPad. So about a week ago I decided to subscribe to Office 365. It seemed the best way to fully take advantage of OneNote. I thought, if this works, I won’t need Evernote or TheBrain any longer, and will at last be able to consolidate a lot of my information management.

Once the subscription was in place, I was able to install the entire Office Suite onto my PC and my Mac. These bloated programs worried me a little, but they are also standards in the industry, so I figured they were just a bonus. Right away I found the flat, mono-toned interface of the Windows Office very bland and actually hard on the eyes. But I took to OneNote right away and started using it constantly.

I went into this knowing that the Mac version was limited in features, but I didn’t realize that it was missing one of the most basic of requirements: password protection. You can selectively password protect sections in the Windows version, but if you try to open those sections on your Mac, you find yourself locked out with no way in. This seems unconscionable in an app that forces you to store your data in the cloud. But worse, even after I removed password protection from the section in question, I still could not open it on the Mac. I contacted Microsoft tech support to learn an answer. After 5 minutes of chatting, which started off promising, I was told that I was in the Windows tech area and that I needed to chat with a Mac tech rep, hold on a moment. Twenty minutes later I was finally told that all the Mac reps were busy and I was given a phone number to call.

Instead, I went back to the support website and found someone who could cancel my Office 365 subscription and refund my money. Ironically, this person was very helpful and within 10 minutes I had my refund (well, I was told I had my refund; I guess I won’t know it until I check my credit card statement).

Obviously, this was a very disappointing experience. I wanted it to work. I wanted to make OneNote my go to data application. Maybe in a year or two, after Microsoft has had a chance to actually turn the Mac version into something that is worthy of use, then I will revisit this plan.

In the meantime, I’ll be sticking with my current, more cumbersome solution and continuing my pursuit of the perfect information manager.

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An embarrassment of riches?

The past week or so has been like Christmas for a CRIMP geek like me. First, I decided to bite the bullet and subscribe to Office 365 so I could use OneNote effectively on all my devices (more about this in an upcoming post). Then I was offered an advance look at Curio 9 (which I’ll be able to write about when it is officially released). Yesterday, Circus Ponies Notebook version 4 was released. And to top it all off, I’ve been trying out an advance version of Tinderbox 6 — talk about changes!

So I’ve been like a kid let loose in a candy shop. After I’ve had some time to digest all the treats, I’ll be posting about them as I’m able.

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Scrivener on sale today

I just noticed that the world’s greatest writing app, Scrivener, is on sale today for half price at Mac Update.

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Further ruminations on the spark file

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

Editing a spark note in Daedalus Touch for the iPad.

I wrote about creating a spark file system the other day. As is usually the case with new information management processes that interest me, I put the cart before the horse, working on a software solution before actually thinking through what the results should be. I took a breath after composing that article to consider what I want to actually DO with a spark file. How do the contents of such a file differ from what I would keep in other note-taking systems I use?

I came up with the following concepts for my spark file, some of which were already percolating while writing the previous article:

  • I do not need or want any categorization beyond keeping the notes in chronological order. Any other categorization might influence how I express the idea. For example, if I start out a note regarding the early days of Yellowstone National Park and classify it non-fiction, it may be less likely that I would consider a novel on the same topic. This would be true as I was writing the note, and months later as I review the note.
  • This is a file just for ideas and guesses (what Steven Johnson calls hunches). I’m not putting any data in this file, no addresses or passwords or order confirmation numbers. What goes in the file comes from my brain only, with the exception of quotations, which might help illuminate an idea.
  • I can refer to other sources. For example, if an article about how we all have Neanderthal DNA in our genes gives me the idea of a new dating service called PrimeMates.Com, which matches people with ideal dates based on their inner cavemen (kind of like Meyers-Briggs but with clubs and hairy chests), then it is okay to put a link to that article in the note.
  • I must not be critical of the ideas I put into this file at the time I create them. Critical notes upon future review will be good practice, I think.

Having crystallized the concept of the spark file a little more solidly, I was then able to return to finding a solution for managing this file with the confidence that I have a better notion of what I’m doing. If you recall from the previous article, the software system had four requirements:

  1. Universal access for editing, reviewing and creating.
  2. Capturing ideas must be quick and easy.
  3. Ability to read the entire set of ideas from start to finish in one scrolling document.
  4. Writing in the editor must be as close to a full word-processor experience as possible.

With those requirements in mind, I have decided to use the Ulysses III-Daedalus combination from The Soulmen. Ulysses is a terrific plain text editor for the Mac that uses Markdown language for formatting text. With Ulysses, you create groups of sheets, which correlates to folders and documents in an app like Scrivener. You can save these groups of sheets in one of three places: locally on your Mac, on iCloud (Apple’s version of Dropbox), or on your iPad in the companion app Daedalus (which is also synch’d via iCloud). In the navigator pane to the left, which Ulysses calls the Library, your groups are sorted by where they are located, so you have a section for your Daedalus materials. (In Daedalus, a group is called a stack, so I’m switching nomenclature — yes, yes, I know it is confusing.) So you have a local copy of your Daedalus stacks in Ulysses on your Mac, which synchronizes beautifully between the two apps.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

Ulysses III with my Spark Notes stack selected.

I’ve created a stack called Spark Notes, which I can access equally well on either of my two MacBooks and my iPad. I create a new sheet for each idea I want to record. This atomization of my spark file may seem to go against my requirements, but it works fine with Ulysses, because I can see all the sheets concatenated into one view just by selecting all of them (see the screenshot below).

Four spark notes selected and view-able as "one" document in Ulysses.

Four spark notes selected and view-able as “one” document in Ulysses.

You can also easily export all the sheets in one stack to a single document in many formats, so there is no lock-in to this system. Daedalus on the iPad provides a little different user experience than this, but one that works well for a tablet. When you select a stack, you drill down to the sheet level, and you can leaf through your sheets like flipping through pages of a book.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

An open sheet, part of a stack in Daedalus for iPad.

There is one hole in this system, which is how to incorporate my Windows PC at work? I can’t access my spark file from the PC, but I can easily write any brainstorms I may have in my favorite text editor for PC, Notetab. I save the .txt file to Dropbox, and when I get the chance I can just drag it into the Spark Notes stack in Ulysses where it seamlessly becomes just another sheet.

A few comments: There are limitations on the sheets you create in Ulysses for use on Daedalus. These mostly relate to the markup you can use with your text, as the iPad app doesn’t have the powerful features of the Mac app. But I don’t need those features for my Spark Notes stack, so it isn’t a big deal. And The Soulmen are working on a Ulysses app for the iPad, which should make this system even more graceful and efficient.


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Ruminations on the idea of a spark file

Thanks to a post over on David Pottinger’s blog, Steps & Leaps,* I was reminded of the concept of the spark file, the invention of writer Steven Johnson. As Johnson describes it, the spark file is “a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books…. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them.”

The key to the effectiveness of this exercise, according to Johnson, is periodically reading the spark file from start to finish.

“I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around,” he writes. “Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.”

This is a tantalizing idea, not unlike the bullet journal in some ways. It’s a single place to record data. In the bullet journal you rapid log events, tasks and random information. In the spark file you keep ideas that you don’t want to forget, at least not now. To get the most out of either system, you need to review the contents on a regular basis, the bullet journal probably more frequently than the spark file.

But there are also crucial differences in the two systems. In a bullet journal it isn’t so much the expression of the information, but the information itself. You bought book Z at your local bookstore on February 3. You completed Y project on March 12. That kind of thing. With a spark file, it seems to me, the expression of the idea is almost as important as the idea itself. Or, to put this another way, recording the idea will instant start to change the idea, and you will want room to be able to explore those changes. It might take two sentences, it might take a whole page. And when you review your ideas months later you will want to be able to append thoughts about that idea.

While a bullet journal could serve as the staging point for a spark file, where you make a quick note of something you want to write down in more detail later, you likely would never move information from the spark file to your bullet journal, unless it was a note to follow-up on an idea.

Johnson says his current spark file is over 50 pages (as of two years ago). So the spark file needs to be able to grow organically. I don’t flatter myself that I have that many ideas floating around in my head or ever will, but do wonder if I would have more if I had a more systematic way of non-critically capturing my “hunches.” Is a spark file something that would work for me? The only way to find out, I think, is give it a go.

And that leads to the next question: What’s the best way for ME to implement this concept?

From Johnson’s description, I can see three essential attributes of an effective spark file:

  • I must be able to access it for both reading and writing from anywhere, at any time.
  • Capturing my thoughts and ideas must be quick and easy, because any road bumps might make me decide to check my e-mail instead of writing down that “hunch.”
  • I must be able to read the entire set of hunches from start to finish in one window. But does this mean it needs to be a single document like Johnson uses? Or can it be composed in an application that provides concatenation of smaller documents into a longer one for reading?

One more essential attribute can be inferred from Johnson’s description, though he does not make it explicit. Regardless, it certainly is important to me. And that is, writing and editing needs to be easy, because I find that once I start to write down an idea from my head, that idea instantly begins to morph into something different. To allow myself the ability to explore this evolution, I have to be able to write in a nimble editor, one that makes it easy for me to re-write as I go. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is nevertheless important for me to make this a requirement, as it will impact the tools I choose to use to keep my spark file. For example, it is one reason why a paper notebook would not work for me, as I am a terrible writer and editor with pen and paper.

As I first started thinking about creating my own spark file, I also began considering options for how to manage it. I rejected hierarchical free-form databases like DevonThink or UltraRecall because the information stored in those applications is too atomized. While those apps may work for others who want a place to store their ideas, they are not in keeping with the major principle as suggested by Steven Johnson of providing a single, readable view of all your hunches.

But does that mean only a single document will work? Not necessarily. It occurred to me that the remarkable writing application Scrivener, could be an ideal environment for keeping a record of hunches. As I envision it, I would create a spark file project and then add individual documents for each “hunch.” There are a lot of reasons Scrivener would be an excellent application to use for this purpose:

  • It’s a great writing environment, in which it is easy to compose and edit text.
  • There are many ways to add meta data to your hunches, if you want to do so. The date you create an entry is automatically recorded for instance. You can also add a synopsis, or annotations, and lots more. That seems useful.
  • You can easily export your entire spark file as a single document in many standard formats, so you are not locked in to Scrivener, and you can make your spark file portable.
  • You can use the scrivenings view, which concatenates your entries into a single window that is virtually indistinguishable from a single document.
  • You can save your spark file project in Dropbox so it is accessible on all your computers. Scrivener is available for both the Mac and Windows platforms.
  • If you want to add information to any of the hunches in your spark file, you can either append them to the original document or add supporting documents, which can appear as sub-documents to the original.
  • If an idea looks like it will blossom, you can easily move it to its own Scrivener file, where you can focus on nurturing it.

There are, of course, a few reasons why Scrivener might not be a good choice for maintaining a spark file. First, there is no current version for mobile apps. While this may be easily overcome using a quick note capture app with easy import into a Scrivener file, it does add a layer of complexity that works against the whole concept of ease and speed. The good news is that an iPad version of Scrivener is in the works and should be available soon.

A bigger issue for me is that in order to share a file among computers via Dropbox, you need to get into the habit of closing the file once you are done with it, as having the same file open on more than one computer currently can create problems. This, in fact, is the issue that has made me decide that Scrivener won’t work for me at this time. I know myself, and if I have to re-open a file in order to record a half-baked idea, I’m probably going to check my Twitter feed first and then… what was that idea again?

So I’m back to square one, which is doing just what Johnson does and having a single document. I can keep it in Dropbox for access from any of my devices. It should be in a standard format. Plain text or a Word document. I’m inclined to choose plain text, as there are more good options on the iPad for opening and editing that format. Okay. Now that I have limited my options to this, it is time to start my spark file and let the genius begin. Or something like that.

And maybe one day Scrivener will solve the problem of synchronizing among various computers using Dropbox.

*Please forgive the incestuousness of my referring to a blog post that refers to one of my blog posts; that’s how I was made aware of it in the first place.

Categories: Productivity, Software | Tags: , | 16 Comments

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