Struggling with Tinderbox and a suggestion

(Tommy Mancino) #22

From my (very) limited experience, Tinderbox requires a fair amount of programming facility to get the most out of it. As a self-taught programmer, I was able to more quickly see what was going on behind the scenes and apply it to my custom domains. Giving this tool to a non-programmer, would be, and is, I think very frustrating experience. Saying that, nothing takes away from the software - it is great, it just requires a certain background/mindset to get the most out of it for MOST (not all) people.

(eastgate) #23

I disagree. So would many, many people with little or no background in computer programming.

Tinderbox does benefit from a facility for abstract thinking and for indirection. Of course, so do most forms of research and writing.

(Mark Anderson) #24

I certainly don’t think of myself as a programmer, and I get by. I learned Tinderbox by breaking down problems into small easier to try/test chunks and built up from there. I think a problem stems from those who’d prefer the ‘code’ was clever enough to guess their intent (the “surely the intuitive answer…” approach). The problem with that is its human nature to presume solutions are easy in inverse proportion to their actual complexity. I initially feel into this group and struggled, until I realised that I needed to understand the toolbox offered by the app. The key to automation aspects of the app (where people seem to struggle most) is deconstruct the task. It’s a toolbox, and a utility. Some assembly is required, but for those willing to ask questions here, that step can be eased.

Tinderbox is not ‘hard’ to learn. Rather there is more to learn than most users need and people struggle to choose the appropriate parts. In the main this stems from an unwillingness to break down tasks into a series of understandable steps instead of imagining an outcome and trying to guess how than might occur.

(James Regan) #25

I tend to agree. I have very little programming experience, and I used Tinderbox to analyze archival data for my dissertation. It saved me a great deal time. I tried using qualitative tools such as MAXQDA11, but in the end found Tinderbox to be much more accessible and less time-consuming. Although tutorials can be useful, I inevitably reached a point where it was up to me to determine how best to use the tool. The beauty of Tinderbox for me is that even when I thought I knew what I wanted, Tinderbox was flexible enough to accommodate my sometimes messy thought process. My bias is that it’s a great tool for identifying connections that you might have missed, sometimes weeks or months after initially entering the data. Instead of tutorials, I would like to see more use-case scenarios in some categorical fashion. I also realize that this is easier said than done. However, I am always looking for ways to make connections so reading a use case about composites would be great.

Tinderbox as a QDA app (alternative to or along with Atlas.Ti or Maxqda)
(Paul Walters) #26

I know I would be very interested in seeing your scenario using Tinderbox for QDA – I think others might too. If you would be able to do that some day it would be very appreciated.

(James Fallows) #27

I am not a programmer. Magazine writer by trade, undergraduate degree in American history and literature, graduate degree in economics, no actual-training in computer languages at any point. (Had to teach myself HTML when we were first starting my magazine’s website nearly 20 years ago.)

I have always liked logic, though, and I enjoy understanding the logical principles that underlie computer languages. In my amateur status I’ve liked the puzzle-solving nature of getting computers to do what you would like them to – the feeling of frustration when they won’t do what you want, the Ahah! sense of magic when you finally put the proper elements together and the result you’re hoping for appears.

After using Tinderbox for a number of years, I feel as if I understand conceptually how to get it to do what I’d like done. The details of syntax often require clearing up, either from questions in this forum or by a look at Mark Anderson’s aTbRef. (For instance, in a recent discussion I didn’t spell out the syntax of an If/Else query because I had forgotten the respective roles of the (, {, and [ symbols. But this page of Mark’s reference lists them.)

I also think this point by Mark A is deceptively important:

In most of my life, I love learning by system. Tell me the main currents of American history. Tell me the main organ systems of the body. In my long-time avocation as pilot, tell me the basic characteristics of an aerodynamic stall, and how it can be avoided. And, when learning languages, tell me the basic rules of grammar.

Probably many people of the sort who would be potential Tinderbox users come from that style and habit of learning. It typifies well-educated people. But Tinderbox is about the first system I’ve encountered where the most effective learning (for me) has in fact been episodic rather than systematic. There’s something I’d like to do; I get help in doing that specific thing; and in the process I get a clue about doing the next thing. It’s like learning a language the Rosetta Stone (software program) or phrasebook way, instead of “here are the rules of conjugation.” It is not “intuitive” for many of the kinds of people who end up trying this software. But in my experience it’s the highest pay-off route.

(Mark Anderson) #28

You expressed my thoughts most eloquently. Like you ,and many here, I too am a ‘system’ person by nature. Thus I do get how unintuitive my advice can seem in this regard.

(Paul Walters) #29

Your, and @JFallows’ advice is spot on. There’s very little software that lends itself to a tutorial that says “start at A, go to B, proceed to C, and finish at D”. Maybe a calendar or reminder app?

But a counterpoint for balance: an interesting article mentioned this week by Ben Evans evaluates user computer skills. Most people don’t understand much about computers.

Hence the challenging balance that folks in Mark B’s shoes have to strike – neither overestimating nor underestimating the position of anyone who comes to Tinderbox. The paradox is “there is no single starting point, but there needs to be some starting point”.

(James Vornov) #30

I think one of the tough parts about beginning to use Tinderbox is wanting to create complexity too soon. I think one learns a complex system by living in it and doing useful tasks. I’ve learned the stats programming language R over the years. I burned through the great Coursera course to get more depth, but it’s only been by using it to solve my own problems, explore my own data that its become part of my toolbox. And if I’m away for a few months, it takes a while to get back up to speed.

But learning how to do something specific starts with sample code usually. There are tons of internet threads addressing almost anything that comes to mind. And if not, you can ask nicely and generally get pointed in the right direction, just like here.

I think it was Roger Peng in that R course who said you have to adopt a hacker’s mindset. There are lots of ways to do things and lots of sources of information so you need to explore the system and learn from where ever you can and whoever you can. I think it’s actually a method of learning that lots of people have mastered in their own areas of specialty, but maybe aren’t used to bringing it to learning how to use a program like Tinderbox. Mastery builds on itself, but disappears quickly without practice

(Katherine Derbyshire) #31

Do you have any idea how infuriating it is to say, essentially, “You’re doing it wrong” to someone who has just plunked down $250 for a piece of software that is now costing them many times that amount in frustration and wasted effort?

(eastgate) #32

Katherine Derbyshire, please meet James Vornov.

I don’t believe Dr. Vornov was trying to frustrate you. Unless I’m mistaken, he’s a neurologist, now at Emory University. He doesn’t need to come here to frustrate people; he has plenty of students and staff members he can frustrate.

I don’t think James Fallows was trying to frustrate you, either. He’s a senior editor of one of the world’s great magazines.

I’m not trying to frustrate you, either.

Tell us more about what you’re trying to do; I’m confident you’ll receive helpful suggestions.

(Greg Korgeski) #33

I’ve read, replied to, and even initiated enough discussions on this and the original forum over a number of years that I really feel anxiety about even sticking my toe into this one. But so, just one possibly useful comment.

Forum readers, as has just been noted, come from many backgrounds. One of mine is as a consulting psychologist, and as I was reading these comments something from long ago was tugging at my mind. I finally recalled what it was and how it seems to me to fit here.

There is a very (to me) useful concept that has been around for fifty+ years, originally applied to worker-employer relationships, called the “psychological contract.” In a nutshell, this refers to the implicit, not spelled out or even easily articulated, “contract” that exists between people. It is based on the normal but sometimes erroneous assumptions that develop in most relationships, along the lines of “if I do X, you will do Y.” If we work hard, we will get paid bonuses. If I cook him supper, he will love me. If I buy a piece of software, it will be as easy to use as other tools I’ve bought before and it will always do X or Y.

Often, the big blowups in relationships of all sorts occur when one’s sense of what is “supposed to happen” – what one is “owed” perhaps (since people are mentioning the cost of Tinderbox), seem to have to been violated.

In terms of software, much of what we might consider a psychological contract is of course based on our experiences with other softwares, including the degree of complexity of the learning curve, what the thing should do and so on. Often, for me and I’m sure others, the expectation is for instance is that to do X or Y in Tinderbox, there “must be” some simple, direct way to do it… or some way based on stuff I’ve already learned from practice. Or at least, one single place where I can find the instructions.

Perhaps the typical “ratio” of expectation (based on using other tools) to easy success is unusually low with Tinderbox, at least for beyond very basic tasks. And therein, often, lies the problem - that’s where people get frustrated.

There may be no easy solution. For many of us, we stick around because the payoff is still pretty high (eventually, at least.) But I do think that it can be a difficult process for many potential users to find that what they assumed was the “deal” they were making – that I’ll invest some time in this tool and so it will do something for me, was a “contract that seemed not to be honored”. The human nervous system responds powerfully to the feeling of having a “contract” violated.

Finally, it seems to me that this cuts both ways in relationships. As many people, developers and forum members who put much effort into helping, must feel every bit as “cheated” (“violated” seemed too strong maybe) when their efforts to help seem not to be sufficient or appreciated. (Much the way people with severe depressions, often proving to be very hard to help, tend to frustrate their would be helpers.)

Don’t know if this is at all useful, except that sometimes, in my squishy, mushy business, just finding another way to describe or articulate the problem proves helpful. Dominique Raynaud’s nice example, for me (as usual!) rings true: it helps me personally to compare Tinderbox mastery to learning something as complex as a new language. You start with an easy phrasebook and learn to order coffee and find the bathrooms, but to really get around will take practice. The trick is deciding if you can accept, and have time for, that level of challenge.

(Desalegn) #34

@regan, @PaulWalters
It is interesting you guys mentioned Maxqda; using TB as qda application.
I have been wondering if that would be possible for a while. You can see this discussion, for example, where Tb comes up as an alternative.

Not to highjack the original topic, I am opening up a new thread for this.

(Mark Anderson) #35

Oops, meant to add this to @Desalegn’s new thread.(Deleted original post)

(Richard Broom) #36

Thank you all so much for the helpful replies and suggestions for my little problem. Once again I am sorry I have taken a while to respond but this old man moves a little more slowly these days. My faith in Tinderbox has restored and I have been greatly encouraged by all your responses. Thank you.

I would still be delighted to see some Tinderbox training sessions on because they do online training so very well.

With regard to my problem I am working through the replies and I’m putting together an action plan. I have decided (very much encouraged by all your responses) to use Tinderbox after all. My plan of attack is to take a ‘bit by bit’ approach and solve any problems I have as I come to them. Time is tight and so the imperative is to get the data into Tinderbox so I can be productive. I might even make a video of this to help (or confuse!!!) other people. I work on the basis that if I can get something to work, then other people can do it too!

And so, once again, very many thanks for you helpful replies. I am sure that, as time goes by, I’ll be back with more questions.

Best wishes


(Paul Walters) #37

Richard – if you listed your top 3 or 4 topics for this kind of training – what would they be?

(James Vornov) #38


One of my lessons from taking Coursera courses is that the exercises are more important than the didactic presentations. The instructors, knowing the subject matter well, provide problems that are easily stated but require some in depth tinkering with the system to solve. On Coursera there are course forums where other students and course assistants answer questions to clarify the nature of the problem, etc. I found that when I set out to then solve my own problems, I used what I learned in the exercises as a starting point, just substituting in my own data, my own presentation needs, etc.

So whether it’s Lynda or other venues, a system as complicated as TBX needs some practice problems to gain proficiency.

(James Vornov) #39

Mark and Katherine-

I’m actually sitting in an office at Johns Hopkins today as adjunct faculty. Trying to be helpful, which is not always easy.

But your points are well taken. I’ve put Tinderbox back on the shelf more than once because of the challenges. But living in it on a consistent basis for a project actually is one of the things that keeps me on a Mac as my iPad becomes more and more capable for typical office tasks. I’ve just never found any other program that suits my visual style of thinking and allows creating new objects that build on the data I’ve put in.

One of the aspects of Tinderbox that I’ve found frustrating over the years is how spread out the coding is in the program and the various controls and inspectors. Inheritance provides another level to get confused in. I think it’s better now than it used to be. But I think there’s a reason why programmers still write their code in text editors. It’s all there, functions are well defined and debugging tools available. Tinderbox, using its graphical metaphors, spreads that out making starting with smaller steps a good bit harder.

I don’t think I do much that’s really sophisticated in Tinderbox. I build a few bibliographies on books I’m taking notes on, summary notes with links to information in TBX notes, on the internet or other programs like Devonthink. Lately I’ve been working on tagging notes for collection as text summaries to provide the basis for a writing project. But its all about creating small workflows and building them up into a bigger system that does what I need.

(Barry Weinstein) #40

Coherent, navigable documentation and the new user experience are important. I’ve yet to read a post from Eastgate saying they have to do better. It’s important that they not make such a post if they disagree or are not in a position to act on it. Let’s assume there is this divide.

Mark, with aTbRef, stepped up to help fill the void. He and many others do so with forum contributions. But, it feels a piece is still missing.

Has anyone considered a community Wiki? This might be asking too much of the user community. That aside, is this a kind of resource that could help?

(eastgate) #41

We had a community wiki for years. It’s been locked for a long time, thanks to Chinese spam farms. See this.

This was, of course, before the dangers of wikis to their users became apparent. See this for background.