Today I want to start a series of posts about a software application called Tinderbox. I’ve been intrigued by Tinderbox since first learning about it eight years ago, but could not give it a try until I picked up my first MacBook last year. Tinderbox is not an application that reveals its power with light use, so I wasn’t convinced to pay the steep price for it after casually running the trial version. Finally, however, I gave in when the application was discounted by $50 last spring. I began using Tinderbox intermittently, because I was still trying to understand how best to use it — you’ll see why in a moment. A failure to come to rely on any of the many other Mac-based information managers I’ve trialed and purchased has moved me to make a genuine commitment to using Tinderbox.
My hope is that writing this series of posts will help me come to understand Tinderbox and how I might best put it to use. Also, it is timely that version 5 of Tinderbox was just released. This is a long-awaited conversion that allows Tinderbox to run more smoothly on the current Mac operating systems.
Many people describe the learning curve for Tinderbox as steep… which is true. But one of the points I wish to make clear with this and subsequent posts is that you can get a great deal of functionality out of the application even using just the most basic features.
What is Tinderbox?
I guess the first place to start is to try to describe Tinderbox, not in the developer’s words, but in my own. Like most, if not all, information managers, the core element of Tinderbox is the note. When you create a new document (which could also be called a database), you are creating a place to collect and store notes. Each note is in itself a collection of attributes. All notes have the same set of attributes, and you can create any number of custom attributes that can be applied to subsets of notes in your document. Think of attributes as fields in a typical database. Some of these attributes define the look and location of a note. Some contain meta data such as the date the note was created. Some define how the note might be exported. Some contain the pertinent information that you want to collect in the first place. The list of attributes is long and is intimidating at first, but you don’t need to concern yourself with most of them.
Key attributes are attributes you select for a note to display. In the screenshot below I’ve created a note with two key attributes. These are also custom attributes that I made up.
I’ll talk more about key attributes in a future post.
One of the most unique features of Tinderbox is that its user interface is so versatile. You can view your notes in several different modes. Three of them have proven quite useful to me: Outline, Chart and Map views. Map View is probably the most unique of Tinderbox’s many features, so that’s the view we’ll look at in this post. But first a quick word about what happens when you run Tinderbox.
When you create a new document/database, the default view is outline. This is primarily a text-based view that shows the titles of your notes in a hierarchical list. As such, it will appear to be much like any other outliner. It is more than that, especially since version 5 has introduced the ability to add columns for viewing attributes. I will discuss Outline View in a later post, but want you to be aware that you have to specifically open a Map View using the VIEW menu, otherwise you’ll be a bit confused.
Map View by itself would make Tinderbox unique. It is essentially a cork board on which you pin your notes. You can freely arrange notes on the map, visually grouping related notes. It is here that several of the note attributes become visual, effecting the shape, color and size of the note. The screenshot below shows the second note pictured above collapsed in a map view. I know it looks a bit lonely, but it is easy to add many other notes.
Map View allows for numerous ways to further classify your information. You can drop notes into other notes. A note that contains notes is referred to as a container. (If you switch to Outline View, you’ll see that notes within notes appear at a lower level of hierarchy.)
You can also fence off areas of the screen with adornments, colored boxes that stay in the background and in which you can group notes. Adornments are NOT part of the outline, and do not indicate hierarchical categorization. Let me give an example of one way I use adornments. For a publishing project I’m involved in, I’ve created notes that represent milestones and tasks. I added adornments as vertical columns, each of which represents a yearly quarter. Under these I created horizontally oriented adornments representing aspects of the project: editorial, illustration, production. Now I can place the milestones and tasks on the matrix, so that I have a chart of the project timeline.
What I’ve just described doing is easy even for novice Tinderbox users. Adornments can be used in many other ways. As another example, I have a document I call Thought Garage. In it I keep miscellaneous items and reminders, as well as notes that link to other Tinderbox files of current projects. I have an adornment set up as mission control, to house these links. I have another adornment called reminders, where I stack notes reminding me to do things.
I’ve only covered the most basic ways to use the Map View in Tinderbox, but even at this level I think it is evident that Tinderbox is a unique thinking, planning and organizing tool.
But this is just the first dimension, because Tinderbox provides the means of automating data manipulation. In fact, as far as I can tell, anything you put into Tinderbox can perform actions that effect other data. I’ll get into that in the next installment, as well as looking more closely at Outline and Chart views.