Tinderbox Chronicles, part 4

It has been several months since I last wrote about the quirky, amazing information manager, Tinderbox (for previous entries see part 1, part 2 and part 3). There have been a couple of reasons for this, which are somewhat related. Foremost has been the fact that I came to the end of my expertise with the application after the third entry. My original purpose for writing about Tinderbox was to demonstrate that even without knowing a lot of the “under-the-hood” techniques, you could still do a lot with the program. I hope I achieved that, but to write more I felt I had to learn more about Tinderbox. And there lies the problem. We now enter the territory that earns Tinderbox its reputation as having a steep learning curve.

As an example of how I have “hit the wall” with Tinderbox, I was recently setting up a database (document in TB parlance) to track my collection of Lakeside Classic books. Using the same technique I used in part 3, I created a spreadsheet containing the book title and year of publication, then dropped that into the Map View and voila, I got this:

Lakeside Classics
Tinderbox Map View of Lakeside Classics

Now the problem. I wanted to add a Key Attribute to mark the titles that I own (Key Attributes are essentially custom fields for various types of data). Simple, right? Not so fast. I was able, of course, to add the Key Attribute to one of the notes, and I made that note a prototype. Now all I had to do was apply that prototype to all the notes. Should be simple to do, right? Not so much — at least for me.

I think there are several ways that this should be doable:

  1. Create an action in the parent note that makes all its children the same prototype.
  2. Create an agent to do the same thing.
  3. Create and apply a Stamp to the lot of them (more on Stamps, below).

And there are probably other methods, which I haven’t thought of.

The problem with all these methods is that in each one I have to come up with the right syntax for writing the action, and I can’t for the life of me figure that out, and the Help documentation isn’t very helpful.

Perhaps here I should give you a little background about myself, so you can determine if you might be more or less technically adept than I am. I have been using personal computers for almost three decades. Over the years I have managed to self-teach myself Lotus 1-2-3, Grandview, Pagemaker, InDesign, among many other applications. I got through a beginners programming class, but in addition to a little Basic I learned I don’t really have a knack for programming. So I would describe myself as a veteran computer user, with a blindness for scripting/programming.

If you understand this stuff and are willing to put in the time to learn how to do it in Tinderbox, you should be able to make the application work miracles on your data. The Stamps feature is a good example. Stamps are sort of like macros, I guess. You create any actions you want, add them to the Stamps list and you can then apply those actions to any of the notes in your database. It’s like programming your own menu of options.

I applaud this kind of functionality, even if it will never work for me. However, I am disappointed that certain basic actions are not already programmed for users like me. Making it easy to apply prototypes to groups of notes, for instance, shouldn’t require writing an action.

This is probably the point where some Tinderbox expert will send a comment telling me there is an easy way to mass-apply prototypes, idiot! — and, if there is, I’d like to hear it. I have avoided asking for help on the Tinderbox forum, as I think that’s cheating when evaluating the functionality of an application.

But let me be clear. I still admire Tinderbox and find it exceedingly useful, even with the limitations that make it difficult for people like me. The point here is that what limits Tinderbox for my use is that every step beyond some of the more basic functionality I described in previous posts requires combing the help documentation and a lot of trial and error. Truth be told, the help documentation is abysmal. I’m sure I could eventually figure it out, but that’s too much work.

And this gets me to the other reason I haven’t written for a while about Tinderbox: I’ve added PersonalBrain to my list of information managers. In a future installment I’d like to do a comparison of these two programs, which I think will prove somewhat instructive — or hope so, anyway.

But this story does have a happy ending. See the next installment, which I’m posting at the same time as this one.

UPDATE: The developer of Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, provides instructions for easily applying a prototype to multiple notes in the comments section below. And he didn’t call me an idiot, which I appreciate, because he might justly have done so!

11 thoughts on “Tinderbox Chronicles, part 4

  1. I am so glad I am not the only one. My programming knowledge is weaker than yours and I have hit the same brick wall.

    I have had the program for about four years now and I am using only a small subset of its features and it irks me no end.

    1. Maybe one day one of the Tinderbox masters will produce a Tinderbox for Dummies, as Hugh suggest below!


      1. They have! It’s a new “junior” or “lite” version of TB named Twig.

  2. Easy ways to apply prototypes to a bunch of notes:

    a) Select the notes. Open Quickstamp. Select “Prototype” from the popup menu.

    b) Type in the name of the Prototype — perhaps “Lakeside Classic” or “Book”

    c) Press “Apply”

    d) There is no step d.

    – – – –

    In an action, the command is

    Prototype=”Lakeside Classic”

    – – – –

    The Tinderbox Forum (http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/forum) is a great place to get help with questions like these 🙂

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for giving me the answer, and for not calling me an idiot. I hope that my affection for Tinderbox is evident in my posts, even this one, which is generally critical. Your program is really great. I just wish its many features were more transparent, or that the help documentation were clearer.

      And thanks for Tinderbox.


  3. Many thanks for these, Steve.

    “Abysmal” is, sadly, indeed the word for the documentation, when as you say, you’ve reached a certain level of competence. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of it; there is. But there doesn’t appear to be a single, comprehensive collection of rules, definitions and guidelines that takes you from the most simple to the most complicated. The documentation there is appears to consist of several parallel attempts to explain, but none of them complete. Occasionally Tinderbox-speak almost feels like a living language: “Try X, or failing that, Y”. I wish there were a “Tinderbox for Dummies”!

  4. I’ve used Tinderbox since the very beginning (beta!) and am exactly where you are. A computer user for more than 30 years, have mastered any number of programs, but cannot script or program.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that unlocking Tinderbox’s power requires some knowledge of scripting. Mark Bernstein and forum members are incredibly helpful, always willing to tell us (nonprogrammers) how to do something. And, all of the necessary syntax is contained in the documentation. But it is the difference between a cookbook and a basic guide. The problem is that there needs to be either a Tinderbox for Dummies, or at least a phased guide to what kinds of scripting and syntax one needs for basic functions. In all my years, no one has ever quite been able or willing to do this. I think it just comes down to the difficulty of experts viewing the world through the eyes of novices, the bane of all technical writing.
    It would be great if some experienced Tinderbox users could engage in a dialogue with those of us who are experienced, but not programming literate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s