Software

ThinkBook gets a face lift, more

[Update: It occured to me that this article needed a screenshot of a ThinkBook outline. Now it does.]

ThinkBook is a nifty iPad app for taking notes and planning projects. You can create notebooks, pages, notes, todos, questions and other items using the unique slider feature. It also is smart with the types of gestures you need to re-organize your information. You can see the slider in action on the developer’s website (note that at the time of this writing the videos used the previous version of ThinkBook, so the look of the app will be different, but the action of the slider is still pretty much the same).

ThinkBook on my home page, featuring the various notebooks I've created. Note the slider on the right (the little triangular thingy), which you tap to bring up the menu of various item types that you can add to your notes.

ThinkBook on my home page, featuring the various notebooks I’ve created. Note the slider on the right (the little triangular thingy), which you tap to bring up the menu of various item types that you can add to your notes.

The app also has some other nice features, like making it easy to create custom dashboards which pull information from your various notes based on criteria you set. ThinkBook just recently got a major update, which mostly revolves around getting the UI to conform more closely to iOS 8 standards.

But it has also received a few new wrinkles. The primary one is that it is now a universal app (that is “universal” in Apple parlance, which means that it can run on an iPad and on an iPhone/iPod Touch). Along with this comes the option to synchronize selected pieces of data (whole notebooks, just pages, or only notes) via iCloud (requires a $3.99 in-app purchase).

In order to perform this operation, you need to first create an equally named item on each of your devices. This is slightly awkward, I think. First, you need to create same-named items on both your iPad and iPhone. So, for instance, if you have a page on your iPad called “Weekly Meeting,” you need to create the same page on your iPhone. As soon as you do, you get a prompt that a sync is waiting. This works fine, but it discourages you from having all your notes on all devices, though it doesn’t make it impossible. (I believe that if you synchronize at the top level notebook, all the sub-content will sync too.) But you also need to be careful that you keep your notes uniquely named. So, you’d probably want to name that meeting note something like “Meeting – week of May 11, 2015” so you don’t run into a problem next week.

Still, this syncing does seem to work fine, and it helps slightly to alleviate one of the problems with ThinkBook, which is that it is kind of out there on an island of its own. You can export notes in what I’d call the usual iOS ways, but there isn’t much other cross-app integration. ToDos are not saved to your Apple reminders. There is no way to use your information efficiently on your Mac (let alone your PC), other than exporting chunks of it at a time. At least now you can create notes on your iPhone and view them on your iPad and vice versa. That’s something.

If ThinkBook had a Mac client, then it would be my go-to information manager, I think — that’s how much I like it otherwise.

Creating nice looking and useful outlines is easy in ThinkBook.

Creating nice looking and useful outlines is easy in ThinkBook.

Another nice feature of ThinkBook is that it is a pretty handy outline builder, so if you’re looking for that functionality on your iPad and iPhone, you should take a look at it.

One other note about ThinkBook: The app is now free, though it features several in-app purchases. Some of these are just cosmetic features, but I bought them anyway to support the developer.

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Outlining with Tinderbox 6 (6.2 to be precise)

The Outline View in Tinderbox may be the software's most under-appreciated feature.

The Outline View in Tinderbox may be the software’s most under-appreciated feature.

Tinderbox is such a remarkably versatile tool for managing information in great part because it provides you with several distinct views of your notes:

  • Map
  • Outline
  • Chart
  • Timeline

Map view is probably Tinderbox’s claim to fame. I know of no other application that gives you such a flexible digital canvas for displaying/organizing/managing your notes. In fact, Map view is so extraordinary that it can easily overshadow the other views offered by Tinderbox. Today I want to look more closely at Outline view, not in context of how it complements Map view, but in and of itself. In other words, just how good an outliner is Tinderbox?

Note: This overview is using Tinderbox 6.2.

Outline View

When Mark Bernstein, Tinderbox’s mad genius, took the application to version 6, he changed the entire user experience. Where in previous versions you would need to open a note to see its content, now Tinderbox looks, at least superficially, like most other two-pane outliners. It has the outline tree (Outline view) in the left pane, and the note contents in the right.

Note: In this review I use the terms note, headline (or heading), topic and item almost interchangeably. All refer to the text that makes up each node of the outline. When I’m talking about the information in the note, I will use the term content or note text.

In this overview, I will be pretending that the other views in Tinderbox don’t exist. That’s silly, I know. But I’m interested in conveying just how good Tinderbox is as an outliner.

Outlining 101

I’ve listed on this site in the past a set of criteria for judging outliners. The first of these is just how easy it is to bang out an outline. I want the application to “disappear” when I’m outlining. I don’t want to think about anything but the project at hand. That means I should be able to create headings and move them into their proper place in the hierarchy without removing my hands from the keyboard, and the strokes needed should be intuitive and easy enough to use that I don’t have to think about them. That’s the first test Outline view must pass. So let’s start by creating a new document.

When you create a new document, Tinderbox presents you with open tabs for Map View and Outline View. I've closed Map View for this example.

When you create a new document, Tinderbox presents you with open tabs for Map View and Outline View, and it gives you some helpful hints about just what to do next. I’ve closed Map View for this example.

Create outlines with ease

Tinderbox 6 uses a tabbed interface. When you create a new document, two tabs are created and open: Map view and Outline view. Map view is selected by default, so the first thing you need to do if you want to make an outline is switch focus to the the Outline view. Tinderbox indicates the view type with an icon and the word “Map” or “Outline,” which is a good thing because before you add anything to either view, they look identical — though version 6 does include some helpful hints in these otherwise empty spaces. For this article, I’m closing the Map view tab. Now, I can create my first heading just be beginning to type it. When I’ve finished, I press ENTER and Tinderbox suspends editing mode. When I press ENTER again, I get a new topic and am in editing mode, so that I can type the title. I continue this process as needed. If a topic should be a child of a previous topic, I just demote it with the TAB key. Change my mind, use SHIFT-TAB to promote the topic. Nothing extraordinary, but this is exactly how I want an outliner to behave. You can create sub-topics to as deep a level as you need.

Reorganize quickly and easily

Outlines rarely are created with exactly the structure I want, so I will need to re-organize the topics. Moving a topic up and down within its current level simply requires the UP or DOWN ARROW key in combination with the COMMAND key. I need to promote it before I can move it to a new parent topic. And, of course, I can use drag and drop to move headings around freely in my outline.

Familiar disclosure triangles

Tinderbox also features the familiar triangular disclosure buttons, so you can collapse and re-expand the various levels in your outline. While there is nothing unique about Tinderbox’s tools for building an outline, it is also surprising how often developers of outliners make it so much more difficult than this. Tinderbox passes this first test with flying colors. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing about any of the rest of the app’s outlining features.

Outlining 201

Sophisticated outliners have advanced features. Tinderbox 6 has many of these, but not all of them (specifically, it is missing inline notes — that is, you can’t view the content of the note in the outline tree itself).

Notes

Before delving into Tinderbox’s slightly more sophisticated outlining features, I need to add some background about the software. Bernstein calls Tinderbox the “Tool for Notes.” Keep that in mind, because it explains how everything in the program centers around collecting, gathering, writing, managing and accessing notes. Most of the items you create in your outline will be notes (although you can also create agents and separators — more on these shortly). An understanding of just what makes up a “note” in Tinderbox is necessary for understanding how to get the most from Outline view. To get “notes” you have to get “attributes.”

Attributes

Pretty much everything in Tinderbox is made up of attributes — think of this as the DNA of your information. Just like every living creature has unique DNA that makes them look and behave in specific ways, so to the attributes that compose Tinderbox notes dictate how they look and act. You don’t have to concern yourself with most of these attributes. Some of them you will manipulate without even knowing you’re doing so, such as the position in the outline, the content of the text of the note. Tinderbox automatically records these attributes, as well as information such as the date of the creation of the note. All the attributes that are by default a part of a note are called system attributes. You can also create your own “user” attributes, so that you can customize Tinderbox documents to your specific needs. Attributes matter for this discussion when you choose to make them “key” attributes. A key attribute is one that you select to display within the note pane along with the text of the note. In effect, these become database fields. So, for example, you can add a DueDate (system attribute) to your notes, or create a user attribute for holding a reference URL and make these a part of the ecosystem of your outline. If you’re sketching out a novel, you can make key user attributes for location or character features.

Click the plus sign in the notes pane to add key attributes to the note.

Click the plus sign in the notes pane to add key attributes to the note.

Adding and creating key attributes for your notes is easy. Just click the “+” button in the upper right of the notes window. Type in the name of the attribute you want to add as a key attribute. If it exists, it will automatically show up. If it doesn’t exist, you’ll get a dialog box asking if you want to create the attribute — you can then tell Tinderbox what kind of data it will hold: string, number, date, boolean, URL, etc…

If you try to create a key attribute that is not already an attribute, Tinderbox gives you the option to create it and select the type of data it will hold.

If you try to create a key attribute that is not already an attribute, Tinderbox gives you the option to create it and select the type of data it will hold.

Columns

Attributes will stick with your notes no matter which view you are in. You can add columns to your outline to display attribute values for each note, sort of spreadsheet-style. Select “Use Columns” from the VIEW menu and you’ll get a column management bar just above your outline.

Adding columns to your outline is easy.

Adding columns to your outline is easy.

Just press the plus sign in this column management bar to add a column. Press again to add a second… as many as you need. By clicking on the column title (which by default just says “attribute”), you can type in the name of the attribute you want to display. This makes it a lot easier to compare values across your notes.

Aliases

One of the limitations with using an outline for organizing data is that a note often belongs under more than one heading. Tinderbox allows you to create aliases of your notes, so the same note can appear in multiple places. Changes made in one of the aliased copies, will be reflected in all of them. Tinderbox distinguishes between the original note and the alias by making the alias title italic. In many outliners, this feature is known as cloning.

Checkboxes

Checkboxes in an outliner are not a high advancement, but not every outliner has them, so I want to make sure to mention that Tinderbox does. Just select “Use Checkboxes” from the VIEW menu. The implementation isn’t too sophisticated, however, as you can’t apply checkboxes to individual notes… it’s the whole outline or not at all. This is a small, but legitimate issue, I think. A checkbox in a list is a handy way of indicating what is a “task” and what is not. If every item has a checkbox, this doesn’t work so well. There are other ways around this, though; for instance creating a prototype (more on prototypes below) note called “task” which would have a different color value or badge (more on badges below) than the other notes. As with so many aspects of Tinderbox, the application has an interesting wrinkle relating to checkboxes. Every note has a “checked” attribute. If you create a column for “checked”, you can run your checkboxes in a straight column, instead of along the left side, among all the other little icons. This can be cleaner and easier to view.

This screen detail demonstrates the two ways you can include checkboxes in your outline. Of course, you would never need to use both.

This screen detail demonstrates the two ways you can include checkboxes in your outline. Of course, you would never need to use both.

Badges

Another nice feature of the Tinderbox Outline view is that you can choose from several different badges — specialty icons — that appear just to the left of the note title. For example, select a red flag badge for urgent items. You can see the red and yellow flag badges in the screenshot above.

Special Tinderbox Features

Tinderbox is jammed with features. I’m going to mention a few here that can turbo-charge the outlining experience.

Separators

A very useful feature of Tinderbox’s outlining function is the ability to add Separators. A Separator is a special note you create to act as a fence separating different sections of your outline. If you’re planning a novel, say, you may use separators to create sharp visual divides between your plot outline, your character list, your location list, and your research notes. Any note can become a separator, but you’ll probably want to create notes just for this purpose. After you create a new note in your outline, open the Inspector Window (command-1). Select the properties inspector tab (the number 4 in a box), then check the option for “Separator.”

The Properties tab in the Inspector allows you to set a note as a prototype, template or separator.

The Properties tab in the Inspector allows you to set a note as a prototype, template or separator (or leave it as none of the above). You can also assign a prototype to the note with the drop down box.

When you mark a heading as a Separator, it takes on a special look in your outline (and disappears from any other view in your document — so you won’t see it if you switch to Map view — and you won’t see any of sub notes of the separator). The screenshot at the top of this article shows separators in use: Characters, Research and Prototypes & Agents.

Open in new tab

Hoisting in an outline means you can select a heading and its sub-heads and make the rest of the outline disappear. This is an especially useful feature with large and complex outlines, and ones that have deep hierarchy. It gives you the ability to focus on the section you happen to be working on, without the distraction of the rest of the document. Tinderbox does not have a hoist function in its Outline View (though the Map View works specifically by hoisting to different levels). But it has something even better. It lets you select a heading and choose to open it in its own tab. (Select the option from the pop up menu when you right click over the heading.) Now you can select that tab and work on that section of the outline, but you can also click back over to the tab showing the bigger picture for reference.


Correction: Alerted by Mark in the comments section, I see that I missed that Tinderbox does have a dedicated hoist view. Per Mark:

In the view menu, Focus view hoists the currently selected container (you can’t hoist a note with no children) in the current view; Expand view ‘un-hoists’ one outline level, reversing the process.

If you prefer a UI approach, double click the icon to the left of a container to hoist/focus it. To un-hoist/expand use the breadcrumb bar that shows at the top of hoisted views in the View pane (the left pane of the document window). Clicking on any breadcrumb un-hoists the current view to that level.

Thank you, Mark.


Icons convey information

You’ve probably noticed the little rectangular icons that live between the disclosure triangles and the text of the heading. These icons approximate the amount of text contained within each note. An empty square is a note without text. A rectangle with lines, means there is text in the note; the more lines, the more text. These icons will also tell you if the heading is an agent, by putting the heavier line at the bottom of the square, instead of at the top, as it does with notes.

Prototypes

I mentioned prototypes earlier. These are very handy for mass applying to many notes attributes you set up for one note. As an example, say you’re creating character reference notes, you might want to have key attributes for age, sex, and hair color. Create a “character” note and give it those key attributes. Then open the inspector window, on the in the properties inspector tab check the “prototype” option (see the previous properties inspector screenshot). Now, whenever you create or edit a note that is about a specific character in your story you can apply the “character” prototype (selecting it from the options in the pull-down menu in the properties inspector tab). Voila, it too will have those key attribute fields.

Selecting a prototype for the note, applies the properties of the prototype to the note. In this case adding key attributes for Age, Hair and Sex.

Selecting a prototype for the note, applies the properties of the prototype to the note. In this case adding key attributes for DueDate, Responsible, and Checked — this is a hypothetical outline for managing a project.

Agents

I hesitate to mention agents, because now we’re dipping our toes into a little more sophisticated Tinderbox functionality. Yet, an agent can be really handy for helping you get a grip on your outline, and you don’t need complicated routines. Agents in Tinderbox can perform all kinds of cool things, but I’m only going to suggest the most basic use in this outline-centric article. Let’s get back to our novel project. In the outline, I’ve got scenes organized by chapter, but I want to see the list of scenes in a flat view and I want to see the dates these scenes take place to make sure my timeline makes sense. I’ve already created a prototype for scenes and applied it to all my scene headings. So I can create an agent that finds all the scenes for me.

This agent has a simple query that looks for all the notes in my outline that have the scene prototype applied to them.

This agent has a simple query that looks for all the notes in my outline that have the scene prototype applied to them. (Note, I usually add the prefix “Proto:” to my prototypes, just to make it easier to identify them. This is note required.)

Now I can choose to open just this agent and its newly gathered scene aliases in a new tab, where I can display a column with the dates the scenes are to take place.

I can use an agent to help me see in one place all the notes of one type (in this case, scenes), where I can also customize the view to see meta data relating specifically to those types of notes.

I can use an agent to help me see in one place all the notes of one type (in this case, scenes), where I can also customize the view to see meta data relating specifically to those types of notes. In this case, the date the scene takes place and the location.

Agents can do more than just collect other notes. They can perform actions on them. So, for example, if your outline relates to a project, you could create an agent that looks for any note that has a prototype of “task” AND a checked attribute value of false, and assign it with a red flag badge to make it clear which jobs are yet to be completed.

New export options

One of the things that used to hold me back from using Tinderbox for outlining was the baffling process for exporting notes. It involves creating a template for the way you want the notes to look after export. Tinderbox wizards don’t seem to have trouble with this, but I never could really get my head around the process. Fortunately, the latest version of Tinderbox, edition 6.2, includes more pre-made options for exporting your whole document or just parts of it. Here are the options:

  • HTML – which still baffles me. It creates a bunch of files like a website, but when I try to open them it says it can’t find the template. This lack of understanding is definitely a failing on my part to work very hard to get it. I’m sure the solution isn’t very complicated.
  • Outline – which exports just the headings in a hierarchically formatted text file.
  • Text – which allows you to export the whole file or parts of it in one of several different formats, including RTF, OPML or Scrivener.

The Text export option is the one that I find useful. In fact, I’m writing this article in Tinderbox and exporting it as a plain text file to import into WordPress.

The Bottom Line

On my 11” MacBook Air, the tiny screen real estate available to me makes the Outline view far more useful than Map view. That’s what has prompted me to write this exploration of Tinderbox as an outliner. I’d hardly recommend you spend the money just to use Tinderbox for outlining (although, back in the day, a great outliner like GrandView cost more than Tinderbox does today, so it is all relative).

I was going to end this overview by saying that Tinderbox is not the world’s best Mac outliner. But I’ve changed my mind. I think it is the best, when you consider all it has to offer — and I don’t mean Map view (that’s a whole additional benefit, like cosmologists discovering multiple universes). Most two-pane outliners have nice editing windows for writing your notes, but usually have rudimentary outline functions in the tree-pane. Dedicated outliners have strong outlining capabilities, but crude note-taking features at best. Tinderbox combines a powerful dedicated outliner with a good note-taking editor AND throws in database features. This makes Tinderbox unique.

Does this mean it is the best choice for everyone? No. If you’re looking for a lightweight, efficient tool for creating simple outlines, then you may be happier with the nifty OutlineEdit app (which has some terrific features, and more on the way). If you love the column feature in Tinderbox, OmniOutliner does it better. But no other outliner I’m aware of does what I can do with Tinderbox. Oh, yeah, and then there’s Map view.

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Using TheBrain as digital bullet journal

TheBrain as bullet journal - main screen

For the past 14 months or so I’ve been keeping a journal using the bullet journal method, which I wrote about here and here. During this time, I’ve found using a paper notebook quite fun and effective. I’ve been curious about how these same methods could be used with software on a computer and/or iPad. I’ve considered many apps for this, but none seemed to come close to matching the facility of pen and paper. However, I think I’ve finally found an option that could work very well for me.

The following discussion is a bit of a thought experiment on my part, rather than a report on my successful use of TheBrain for bullet journaling. That is, I’ve still only dabbled with TheBrain for this purpose, but I see real promise and wanted to share my thoughts.

Requirements of a Digital Bullet Journal

Before moving into a discussion of how TheBrain would work for this purpose, I should first define what I think are the key attributes of a digital bullet journal?

  • It would need to be accessible from all your devices, to be instantly available for recording and referencing.
  • Recording a log entry should be quick and easy. This is the “rapid logging” part of the journal process.
  • It should provide a means for identifying the logged item as a note, event or task.
  • It should provide a means for further classifying any necessary follow-up on the item:
    • Priority
    • Delegation
    • Further research needed
    • Etc…
  • I need to be able to “page” through my entries for quick and easy review.

There are many other facilities I might hope for in a digital bullet journal, but these are the ones that are required to match the efficacy of a paper notebook.

With these criteria established, let’s look at how TheBrain manages with a bullet journal.

TheBrain as Bullet Journal

Universal Access

TheBrain runs on Windows PCs, Macs and iPad, but also provides online access, so that you should have little trouble getting access to your information at any time. On Mac and PC, your files are available locally so you don’t have to be online to use them, but you can sync your bullet journal brain between devices relatively easily (though I do find the syncing a bit stodgie).

Rapid Logging

Creating one line entries is relatively easy with TheBrain. Key here is creating a new thought for each entry. At first I tried creating a thought for each day and using the notes section for the logging of entries. This doesn’t work as well because it makes it more difficult to be able to quickly scan your entries during regular reviews. There are other advantages to one thought = one entry, which I’ll get to below.

Classification of Entries

There is more than one way to classify an entry with TheBrain, but the one I feel works best for bullet journaling is using thought types. Each thought in a brain can be assigned one thought type, so I have created the following types:

  • Note
  • Event
  • Task (I’ve got one type for “Action Required” and one for “Action Completed”

One advantage to this approach is that you can visually identify the type of entry by assigning an icon to each type. See the screen shot below:

You can assign "thought types" to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

You can assign “thought types” to your entries to classify them as you wish to.

Further Classification

TheBrain allows you to assign multiple tags to your entries (one of the differences between a tag and a type). This is handy for adding classifying indicators to an entry, because an entry can be high priority AND delegated, for instance. See the screen shot below for how tags work:

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I've got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

TheBrain supplies a number of ways to categorize your information. Here I’ve got the tool bar open along the bottom of the screen to access the tag window, among others.

Quick Review

While it is not the strongest aspect of TheBrain relating to bullet journaling, “paging through” your notes is pretty easy and effective. Everytime you click on a thought (entry), it becomes the active thought and moves to the center of the screen (known in TheBrain parlance as The Plex). You can also switch from “normal” view to “outline” view for a more familiar experience as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

In outline view, TheBrain will show you your entries in a more traditional way.

So TheBrain meets all the criteria of a digital bullet journal I set out at the start. Let’s see it in action.

Using TheBrain as a Bullet Journal

Here’s how I have setup TheBrain for bullet journaling. (Refer to the above screenshots for demonstrations of what I’m referring to.)

First, I built a brain that has a thought for each day using the method I describe here.

I make today’s thought the active thought, then add bullet entries under this day, classifying them by type as I make them. I would tag each entry as needed. If an entry needs additional information, I can add that to the notes section, attach a URL or as many files as gets the job done.

I pin the current day to the top of the screen to make it a speedy return if I’ve wandered off somewhere else in my journal brain.

And that’s it for the basics. But there are other advantages to using TheBrain for this purpose.

Other Advantages of TheBrain

I have actually created more thought types than the basic three. I have two task types: Action Required and Action Completed. I also have types for book and movie notes. You can make as many types as you want, but I want to keep the number of choices small, as too many options begin to defeat the purpose of rapid logging.

I haven’t used my digital bullet journal for work, so I haven’t needed to do this, but if you’re considering it, you might use tags to indicate colleauges to whom you have delegated a task. Or to mark an entry as relating to an active project. I have tags that indicate my level of appreciation for the entry; for example, rating a movie from one to five stars. Classifying with tags in TheBrain allows you to find all other entries with that same tag, as indicated in this screenshot:

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

You can view all entries with the same tag by selecting that tag in the tags tool (note that you need to click on the description of the tag, not the checkbox).

Because a thought can live under more than one parent thought, I can make an entry about the start of something under one day, and link to the same thought on the day I finish. I would do this, say, for tracking my reading.

I can also easily archive or backup my digital bullet journal by exporting selections of the journal to tabbed text, including notes. See below for how this looks:

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Entries exported to text and pasted into my favorite text editor, Ulysses.

Other considerations

TheBrain isn’t cheap. Well yes it is. I’ll explain:

If you want to use TheBrain on more than one device and keep your journal in sync, then you’ll have to buy a license, which costs $299 initially, then is $159 a year. That’s not chump change, and if you’re only using the app for journaling, it may not be worth it to you. But there are two factors that may mitigate this expense. First, you might find, like me, that TheBrain becomes indispensible for other uses, and the expense starts to actually feel minimal. But the other factor may play in as well. There is a free version of TheBrain for personal use (and what is more personal than a journal?), so you can try it out to see if you like it. And, if you only want to keep your journal on one device, then there is no need to upgrade to the pro version. I believe all the features I’ve described here (other than syncing) work the same in the free version. (There’s a comparison chart here.)

The bottom line

You may have noticed that the screenshots above are somewhat sparsely populated with entries. As I mentioned, I have only been dabbling in TheBrain as a bullet journal so far, but writing about it like this has made me a bit more excited by the prospect. If I didn’t really love my paper journal, I would definitely adopt TheBrain whole-heartedly for bullet journaling. And it helps that I rely heavily on TheBrain for other purposes. I’ll report back if things develop further.

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Tinderbox update available

From Mark Bernstein, developer of Tinderbox:

Tinderbox 6.1.3 includes a brand-new Help menu item, Getting Started With Tinderbox, which provides a detailed walkthrough for new Tinderbox users. The walkthrough explore outlines, maps, the new Attribute Browser, agents, and lots more, all in the context of an actual Tinderbox task.  There’s also a new Badge Picker, hundreds of new badges, and lots of additional polish.
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OutlineEdit is on sale this week — a brief review

There is no shortage of handy outliners for Mac. One which came on the scene more recently is called OutlineEdit. I have been intrigued by the app since first seeing it, but I tried to demonstrate a little restraint by not purchasing it. Then I learned it was on sale this week at 50% off, and that was all the rationalization I need to go ahead and buy a license.

OutlineEdit's main screen with a few feature callouts.

OutlineEdit’s main screen with a few feature callouts.

While OE operates like most outliners, it does have two less than usual features which I believe I will find useful.

The Marker

OutlineEdit Marker is a Safari add-in that allows you to mark selected text on the web and bring it instantly into your open OE document. Basically, it saves you a couple of cut and paste steps. Handy, but not going to change your outlining life, unless you do a lot of cut and paste from the web.

Nice Window Management

The OE feature that most interests me is its ability to dock or float a document window so you can reference another document (whether an OE outline or any other type of file), while working in your outline.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents. Here it is on the right, with an Outlinely outline open on the left. As you can see, Outlinely is generally more elegant, while OutlineEdit is — in my view — more utilitarian.

Standard Outlining Features

Of course, OutlineEdit has many of the typical features you’d want from an outliner:

  • Folding. Using the disclosure arrows on the left side of the window, you can choose to show or hide sub-topics for any topic. Pretty typical.
  • Checkboxes. You can include checkboxes in your outline, but you turn them on or off for the whole outline. You can’t selectively use them for sub-topics. This matters to me because a checkbox is an indicator that there is something that needs doing. My outlines are rarely composed entirely of tasks. I would like to be able to give a quick scan of my outline to see which items need attention. If all of the items have checkboxes beside them, then I have to read each individually to see whether or not the item is indeed requiring action. Checking the box, grays out the topic.
  • Notes. You can add notes to any topic. (A note in an outliner content text which is attached to the topic and moves around in the outline when you move the topic. This makes it different than sub-topics, which are associated hierarchically with the parent topic, but can be promoted or moved to other topics.)
  • And building, restructuring and navigating your outline is pretty standard and easy to learn and adopt.
This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

A Few Other Features of Note

OutlineEdit does a few other things, which are not so important to me, but may be to others:

Metrics

OE provides some handy metrics for measuring your work in the program. These are:

  • The number of topics
  • The number of levels (which the developer refers to as layers)
  • Character and word counts
  • And, it has a stop watch type feature for tracking the amount of time you work on a document.

Categories

With OE, you can create up to five categories for classifying the topics in your outline. What’s potentially powerful about this feature is that you can filter your outline to see only those topics that have a certain category. This works from the point of the selected topic, so you can filter individual sections.

Once you’ve filtered your outline, you have an option to export just that material, or create a new outline with just the filter-selected topics.

Export Options

OE only exports to as PDF and OMPL file formats, but you can also copy an outline as tabbed text to the clipboard. This should cover the needs of most users, I would think.

Some Limitations

OutlineEdit is missing some higher-end outlining features. For example it does not provide a hoist operation. Nor does it having cloning of topics. You can’t adjust the font, though you can bold, italicize or underline text. And you can’t adjust the label style.

The Bottom Line

If you’re happy with your current outliner, there probably isn’t a need to add OutlineEdit to the lineup. However, since it is on sale for $8, it can’t really hurt. I got it mostly for the floating/docking window feature, which I expect to prove useful to me.

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Hewson on the advantages of Ulysses III for novel writing

I’ve become a big fan of the writing app Ulysses III from the Soulmen. It’s become my go to software for shorter writing projects — I still prefer Scrivener for longer pieces. The novelist David Hewson has become an even bigger fan than I have, and has a nice article about Ulysses and novel writing. He’s also preparing an e-how-to-book about the subject. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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A look at a new favorite iPad app — Mindscope

The other day I learned about a new app for iPad called Mindscope. It sounded intriguing so I installed the free version and quickly decided to spend the $2.99 to upgrade to the full version.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board. You can adjust the color scheme to suit your tastes.

Mindscope is a terrific app, elegant, easy to use, and incredibly useful. The developer calls it a “multi-level magnet board for your brain.” While that’s a perfectly accurate description of the app, it hardly does it justice. Mindscope has elements of a mind-mapper, outliner, personal wiki, and white board. Basically, you write short entries — from single words to phrases — and place these where you like on the screen via drag and drop. If you tap on a phrase, you drop into that topic where you can add sub-topics. This would be like a “hoist” in outliner parlance. (It is also reminiscent of how the much more sophisticated map views in Tinderbox work.)

So you can build complex outlines with Mindscope. But there’s more. The developer has included the ability to build grids on screen, which you can use to visually organize the topics at any level.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Because you can add lines and direction connectors between entries, you can build simple diagrams. You have to manually create each link, so this isn’t the most efficient platform for doing complex diagramming, but it is certainly satisfactory for down and dirty diagrams.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

What makes a Mindscope diagram more powerful than some other diagramming apps is how each entry in the diagram can be the rabbit hole to another level, which can be a diagram, a table or just a list.

The export options are still a little rudimentary, but those that are available work well. To me the most important is getting the text out in a usable outline, and that works just fine. The export function works from any board and includes only that board and any sub-boards. The output is a nicely indented outline.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the "Example" board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the “Example” board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

The developer includes a list of upcoming features and invites suggestions. Here are mine:

  • Add navigation keys to the keyboard to make it easier to edit an entry.
  • Allow users to save boards as templates for quickly setting up subsequent boards. For instance, if you set up a SWOT table with your own layout, you might want to use that over and over again without the hassle of setting it up each time.
  • Allow for distinguishing entries in some way other than just text size. For instance, with a little icon or with a color different than other entries in the same board. (Right now you can change color on a board by board basis, but not on an entry by entry basis.)

I’m sure there are other improvements that will become apparent as I use Mindscope, but I have to say that for a version 1 app, it is remarkably mature. Kudos to the developer. I look forward to using Mindscope for a number of different purposes and projects. In the meantime, if you’re interested, check out the video on the developer’s website, as it does a much better job of demonstrating how the app works than I’ve been able with my simple screen grabs.

Categories: Software | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

A quick look at Hanx Writer

You’d think it would be enough for Tom Hanks to have won two academy awards and be adored by everyone. Now he’s making software for the iPad.

When I first heard about this, I decided I had to take a look. The basic app is free, so I installed it, and much to my surprise I had a lot of fun typing on it. I even wrote most of this review in the thing.

The gimmick of Hanx Writer is that it mimics typing on an old-fashioned typewriter, like the one I wrote all my college papers on. The main way it does this is by keeping the cursor centered on the screen while the editor (looking like a sheet of paper) travels back and forth as you type. The keyboard is in disguise as old keys, and appear to be depressed as you type. The default type face is typewriter, of course, and looking as if you are in need of replacing the ribbon.

Hanx Writer successfully (mostly) recreates the look and feel of writing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

Hanx Writer successfully (mostly) recreates the look and feel of writing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

You can add pages to your documents, and access them through an interface that is reminiscent to Daedalus Touch:

Save your documents, and leaf through the pages in Hanx Writer.

Save your documents, and leaf through the pages in Hanx Writer.

After you are done composing your master work, you can send it off via e-mail, open it in other apps on you iPad, or do with it pretty much what many writing apps allow.

A few drawbacks:

  1. Using the touch screen to navigate the document and select text is challenging, as the auto-centering function makes the text a bit of a moving target.
  2. The app is missing the ability to add a period to your text by double-tapping the space bar.
  3. You pretty much are limited to plain text composition, although you can change text color to red or blue, and you can center your text.

Hanx Writer is free. But if you upgrade you can change the typewriter style, and you can change background colors and a few other frills.

I doubt this app will make me more productive, but it is a hoot to use.

Update: For a contrary view (and one I can fully appreciate), see this blog post by the mystery novelist David Hewson.

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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.

Update:

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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