Tinderbox Forum

A TB Starter Kit?

As I’ve said in another thread (Roam Research - interesting approach to note taking), my latest foray into TB came from a roundabout exploration of Roam - which led me to understand that everything I liked about it was already present in TB. And I’d like to explore why it took me so long to click, and how, maybe, things could be different.

First: Everything here is meant as constructive, and understood to acknowledge the tremendous depth of work and care that’s gone into the resources we have at our disposal. Also, this is a subject about which there are very clearly extremely strong opinions (mine included). I’ll try to tread carefully, and hope people will correct me if I err.

Tinderbox rewards long term commitment, incremental information farming, the care and feeding of one’s databases. It’s opinionated software, that clearly doesn’t follow fads in adding new features. This attracts a certain type of user, who understand what information management is about and are willing to a long term commitment.

The learning curve is steep, and the available resources are not of the “Quick Start” type. The primary focus is on making sure the users understand what they want to do before providing solutions. Furthermore, resources to build and expand helping tools and manuals are few and far between. We are fortunate to have aTBRef because of one person’s commitment to the cause. There are a few sporadic sets of videos that can help people get started. But if one looks at the resources available on the website, most of them are more than a decade old.

I think there is a case to be made for a revamped “starter kit” that could bridge the gap between the inchoate “that sounds like a cool tool for my needs” and the 2-am sleep deprived “what’s the action code to cross reference my notes on Camus with my database on Existentialism”.
I understand that creating an “easy path” is not necessarily a good thing, because we don’t want an influx of people who have very little intention of “sticking with it”. TB is not the next shiny thing.
But at the same time, maybe collectively we could build a new help resource with the objective of:
1. clarify some of the intent behind TB
2. show clear paths to some of the more common requests
3. help onboard people who are still on the fence, daunted by the initial leap of faith.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this: what shape do you think this resource could take. Do you think there is room / appetite / usefulness for such a resource?


Thanks for this thoughtful set of questions, albeit—after 16 years of volunteer community support—not new. The takeaway is not that the support community doesn’t listen, but actually that new users don’t know what they want, beyond a result, coupled with an un-evidenced assumption their task is the same as many others. From experience, it isn’t. That’s not to be harsh, but just based on actual experience.

Making task-related demos (a very time-consuming task) generally results in people essentially wanting the demo re-interpreted in their own vernacular/data context; this is a community support draw that scales badly.

Always popular are videos [sic] of people describing their work. The flip side is people often (over-)value the privacy of what’s seen on screen so feel less-able to share real work. At the same time, such walk-throughs often show exciting results but, less often, the actual process.

I’ve found audiences less responsive to generalised demos. Making-up real-world data is time-consuming, indeed often the most time-consuming part of demo creation. So, I’m unclear what the answer is.

In terms of getting started I’d encourage people to use my starter file - I’ve just udated it for v8.5.0: get starter8-5.zip.

Also understand:


These are great ideas.

One easy starting point, I think, is simply to talk more right here about the sort of work we do, and want to do. These are very popular and well-read threads.

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Amen. Case in point, the speed with which the interesting new Crosstabs has arrived following on from some lengthy discussion of the idea. What individuals want/need to do is often far less obvious as they assume until they broach the subject with other users. Even then there are nuances of individual use: some can be made part of the app, others are better user-configured. The Devil is in the detail.

Talk is good! I’d like to think no post here passes unacknowledged and generally receives an answer or advice. Forum regulars include folk with deep knowledge of some apps regularly used alongside Tinderbox (DEVONthink, Bookends, Scrivener, etc.) as well as those with AppleScript and other programming smarts.

@mwra, I realize the questions are probably not new, as well as the depth of commitment needed to maintain a place where, as you say, “no post goes unacknowledged”. This forum is truly a testament to what can be accomplished with patience and benevolence.

I have been a lurker and occasional poster here for a while. I have tried by fits and starts, to incorporate TB in my daily practice. I think my point comes from the fact that I suddenly saw “a way forward”, although much of it probably has to do with my own circumstances, and little to do with the tool. However, Roam did sort of clarify a way up the learning curve for me, which was novel.

This however is probably the crux of the answer. For all our willingness to help one another, there is a point where the user has to figure out what they want. That said, if I keep up the work of building my own notebook from scratch, I’ll try to set up some time aside to document the process. This may be helpful for budding TBers …

To me this is one of the most powerful benefits of TB, what truly makes it an exemplar.

A woodworker friend of mine said that the first tool an apprentice carpenter is given is a broom. With TB, we have a sophisticated workshop full of tools and must learn about our own thinking to even use it. This meta-experience is a brilliant and overlooked gift we receive as users and while people may complain about the design of TB here or there, it is well designed for the task of thinking and learning.

This is an empowering move on @eastgate’s part and TBH I don’t think many software companies today care much about empowerment of their users… especially relative to how much they care about ease of use, which may, in some cases, work against building intellectual or creative capacities.


After reading this thread and thinking about my own experience, perhaps it might address some of the issues raised if, instead of a starter kit, there might be a series of structured questions regarding the nature of the intended use, the type(s) of data being considered, possible end results envisaged, maybe other software involved as well as some indication of the level of experience of the user (OK with simple coding, for example). Maybe this could be attached to the "Getting Started…’ example? Maybe it’s a first post requirement on this forum?

Perhaps this isn’t such a good idea, but perhaps some sort of structured introduction from the user’s point of view (other than the ‘Getting Started…’ one) might be worth considering?

This, of course, might be more trouble than it’s worth, but…

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This is interesting, and I agree with @Flailingaround that a kind of semi-formal starting post from willing new users would help the rest of the community with context, and help the poster frame their question.

Of course, of the 835 users of this community (as of a few minutes ago) most of the registered users do nothing or very little when visiting here.

There is no context for these data of course: no knowledge of actual Tinderbox owners in the universe (include Alpha Centauri of course), how many seek help elsewhere, why folks register here, what other forum’s user profiles are, etc.


Data for cross tab fans
Forum User Info 20200229.tbx (618.8 KB)


I think @Flailingaround’s idea is really interesting. The arc of many threads is to move away from the originators description of their what idealised outcome looks like (in their minds eye) and abstracting/breaking it down into generalised building blocks the OP can then use. However, this flip from imagined outcome of a defined process/workflow to the same described in terms of building blocks (i.e. Tinderbox’s toolset) can be hard. Certainly, not because anyone in the conversation is being dumb or difficult. I think that some folk initially find the abstraction difficult/uncomfortable.

So, if we ask, “what are you trying to do?”, the ask is “X”. This is usually bolstered by unstated assumptions that “X” is a common task in the Tinderbox community and that there is a correct way (or few correct ways) to do “X”. A complication is often that they are used to doing “X” in an app/utility designed just for doing “X” and they are confused as to why Tinderbox is not constructed like that app (their frame of reference). At the same time, asking a very abstract question, like “how does you task define its data?” or something delving into its metadata is likely to get a limited reply.

So I wonder how to frame the questions. I think the starting questions approach is a good way to help new forum members, we just have to figure what they should be!

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Perhaps it might be of use to begin the process by asking existing forum members why they came to Tinderbox, what they hoped to get out of it? I realize that only a few (given @PaulWalters’ post above ) will likely respond. But it might be a start. If so, I’ll happily add my answers, which are:

  1. I came to Tinderbox because I couldn’t find any other piece of software which seemed capable of doing what I wanted, i.e., use data in a more flexible way than simply entering notes. I needed to be able to ‘play’ with them and be able to add more complexity later. I other words I wasn’t locked in to only using data in one way.
  2. What to get out of it? That’s simpler. I wanted to be able to have a mass of information that I could link, sort, see, and generally rearrange. A resource bank for a novel…

Of course, this might not be a useful starting point or be the ‘correct’ / most useful questions, but it might open up the discussion into new areas…


Just to say I’m following this thread with interest, though just now I’m tied up with some new coding ideas.

Thank you @Flailingaround

Why I came to Tinderbox

I do not remember when I came to Tinderbox (Eastgate’s records would), but the reason is the same reason I stay with Tinderbox:

  • I want to build information models. “Note taking” seems constrained and dull, as an occupational description. So I want to correlate information related to various problems, work and personal, as they come up.
  • I wanted a combination of flexibility – to support experimentation and recovery from false starts – and tools / features. The infinite attributional aspect of Tinderbox combined with textual and visual views of my content is excellent and sui generis
  • I wanted software that is enjoyable. Using Tinderbox is play. What more can I say about that :laughing:

What do I do with Tinderbox

  • Anything and everything – short list of work and play I have done so far
    – written and published blogs
    – managed projects
    – tracked tasks
    – collected and correlated book notes
    – solved numerous problems with quick, off the cuff models
    – “brainstormed” by dashing off notes and structure, repeatedly arranging, then when “aha” comes, deleting the file
    – doodled with words
    – Written formal documents and informal experiments for work and personal reasons

Where do I want to go next

  • More of the same, but focus on some more in-depth personal research issues overlapping cognition, consciousness and philosophy.

Where do I want Tinderbox to go next

  • Just keep on inventing new things – Eastgate has year by year made Tinderbox fresher and more creative, so I’m happy to ride along wherever Mark goes.

Why I came to Tinderbox

Because I moved to Mac. I used to play around with a tool called Zoot in my Windows days (and I’ve just gone back to see if it was still around. It is, and oh boy has it evolved) - I may have even followed @JFallows

What do I do with Tinderbox

Mostly tinker - every few months I get a hankering to “put my life in tinderbox” - but it never really pans out. I did use it once “to the end” to make a corpus for a “history of photography” presentation i was putting together

Where do I want to go next

Make it a hub of my “online” knowledge. All the prepackaged and heavily marketed tools like “theBrain” feel gaudy. I want TB to be that toolbench i turn to whenever I need to do something with my data

Where do I want Tinderbox to go next

I’d love closer integration with Hook so I can bring links and references to other pieces of data into my .tbx files (e.g. I would’ve linked my picture library to my conceptual notes in the above referenced “history of photography” presentation)
The current discussions on linking, and the things we could learn from Roam, holds great promise.


I’m one of those forum members in the data who visit regularly but don’t contribute much. That is because I find many of the discussions of general working methods interesting, but I’m not really a Tinderbox user.

I can’t remember when I first heard of Tinderbox, but it was a very long time ago, and I think I first came across it mentioned in an article by Michael Bywater. He said it was a special kind of program and I was curious enough to take a look at it. I didn’t stay long because I just couldn’t understand the program. There is some research in psychology that suggests that experience is an obstacle to learning because people take what they have already learned and try to apply it in situations in which it is inappropriate to do so. No doubt I was suffering from some of that, though I didn’t know it at the time.

However, I had seen enough (or heard enough from clever people) to be curious about the program, and that curiosity has never really gone away. Like many people when faced with a mystery, there is an element of “I would like to get to the bottom of this”.

I think my next foray into Tinderbox was inspired by Steve Zeoli. He wrote a few blog posts showing how he had used Tinderbox in a particular case of historical research. If I had not seen that example, I suppose I might never have returned to Tinderbox. However, while I now knew more about how Tinderbox might be used, I still found it too complex for me. (I should say that I have no knowledge of coding, scripting, or anything else of that sort). I have a bit of a history of trying to automate things on my computer and wasting a huge amount of time failing to get things to work. So setting up agents and the like was just too much for me. I maybe had ideas that it would be nice if a note had a certain colour if it dealt with a certain thing, but I just couldn’t get it to work. I had some ideas, but not the skill to put them into practice. And here perhaps it is worth noting that “skill” might not just be a case of knowledge of the correct syntax of a command – it might also be about certain basic principles of computing/coding/scripting that not all of us are well equipped to understand. No matter how many times I read Mark Anderson’s excellent reference material, I will never understand some of it. Marx’s theory of alienation was easier for me. And one of the problems is that ideas and how they might be implemented are actually bound together. You will not have a certain idea unless you have some inkling that it may be possible and how to bring it into being.

In short, I have tried to use Tinderbox many times, but it has never “stuck” with me, and it has never become a regular part of my working life. In many ways I would love to be a user, and I have spent quite a bit of money keeping up to date with the upgrades, but there has always been a barrier. In the back of my mind there is a kind of irrational longing that says “one day I will conquer this program” but there is another part of my mind that tells me that I will never achieve it. I do use the program from time to time, but it often seems to be that I attempt to start a project in Tinderbox, then give up and switch to something simpler. I feel a bit like someone who has some wonderful clothes in the wardrobe, but they are too tight to be able to wear, and I am dreaming of losing enough weight to make them fit. In recent times I have been feeling the need for greater simplicity in the tools I use on the computer. The latest upgrade to DEVONthink was a kind of nightmare for me, and it made me question a lot of the assumptions I had made about working methods over the past few years. At present I am experimenting with plain text notes in the file system, and finding it a bit of a liberation. This has been largely inspired by the discussions over at www.zettelkasten.de. I have taken to using The Archive as a tool for my notes and I like the “bare bones” feel of it. Just me and the text.

And on that last point, a thought has popped into my mind. I believe I have always found using Tinderbox to be stressful. There is so much to be learned and so much that can go wrong that I operate in a mild state of anxiety when I use the program. I have encountered so many conundrums (adornments I cannot reposition, agents that don’t work, etc.). Yes, the community is wonderful and very helpful and can solve many problems. But sometimes you do need to be able to work on your own. In other words, it is not just starting out that may be difficult. There is also a kind of “middle” stage of usage where people may hit a brick wall. I know I did.

In summary, I suppose I would say that I find Tinderbox fascinating, and I would love to be a proper Tinderbox user, but I’m not sure I will ever develop the skills and understanding that are required to get the best out of it. Starting was undoubtedly a problem for me, but so is continuing. I will no doubt carry on dabbling, but more in hope than expectation. I’m sorry this is not a more useful contribution, but this is roughly my experience of trying to learn Tinderbox. And best of luck to all on their journey!


Martin I enjoyed reading your post as it seems to reflect much of my journey with Tinderbox. I tried using Tinderbox at version 2, grew incredibly frustrated and gave up till Tinderbox 7. Much of the time I have Tiderbox Imposter Syndrome(TIS), especially when I read of some of the brilliant solutions in the forums or Mark Anderson excellent Wiki.

I too went down the Zettelkasten route with The Archive and have enjoyed it. Where I have found Tinderbox incredibly useful is when I want to corral facts rather than a note repository. For my limited level of understanding I like using Tiderbox to draw boxes and lines till some structure or cohesiveness emerges. Beck’s Videos are an excellent overdrew of the using maps. Agents and adornments are a useful adjunct to tease out some data.

Admittedly TIS kicks in when I try to use the Attribute Browser or when I read about the Crosstab view. I have come to the realization that I too am a Tinderbox dabbler, but I am content with my current level of ignorance and hope to make some incremental progress in understanding.

Why does reading about cross tabs make you feel like a Tinderbox impostor?

Some people needed this to answer specific kinds of questions about their notes. Like: you have notes about your students. You want to explore how various things affect the student’s final exam score. Are there students who do poorly in other parts of the course but well one final?

Now, this just isn’t a kind of question everybody needs to ask all the time. To be honest, it’s not something I’d really needed to look at in years. But it wasn’t that hard to provide a suitable tool for the job, and if you need it, it’s there.

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Not just Crosstabs but any Tinderbox feature that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I suspect it is something like FOMO (fear of missing out). Tinderbox is a powerful program - I wonder what kind of things I could be doing with it if I just understood it better(hence Tinderbox Imposter Syndrome). Admittedly, it is serving my current needs.

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It is worth remembering the Tinderbox is essentially a toolbox. Very few users, apart from beta testers, need to use every feature. I really think FOMO embracing helps use of the app. Wether a new, occasional, or seasoned user, the key thing is to figure out the parts of the overall toolbox that are pertinent for your work. Tinderbox is not a utility with a small range of tasks and one right way to do them.

Rather than worry about “how to I use feature X?” think about what you are trying to do. If you get stuck, ask here.


I came to Tbx because I love mind maps & outliners but wanted deeper integration with a personal notes database & the ability to ideate flexibly. I’ve explained to Mark B that I struggled mightily with syntax & dialogs at first. And I still don’t feel like I make time-effective use of Tbx. I came to the conclusion that I’m just way too visually-oriented, and that notes have to look predictably laid out & systematic or else I get distracted by departures from that, rather than thinking & creating. I’m the same way with manuscripts that need lots of editing. For example, the first thing I do in a mind-mapping app is build centering or screen-fit macros, then I can think. The map view in Tbx is just too variable in appearance for me to make use of it effectively (or I just haven’t learned how to make notes & their layout sufficiently systematic so as not to be distracting).

I have taken many disparate notes on aspects of financial market concepts & phenomena. Tbx is probably perfect for distilling my overall understanding of all that effort. And yet …

I also think it could be very helpful in teaching myself Spanish. And yet …

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Tinderbox maps are exploration spaces, things like Illustrator or Omnigraffle or Visio are better for creating drawing into which you then add text. However, putting knowledge into fixed structures adds unintentional structure. The power of Tinderbox maps is their freeform structure. There are all sorts guides/grids for alignment. If you need to sweat link lines then I’d export the info to a formal drawing app as you’re trying to fix the map rather than explore its contents.

Put another way, the main point of maps is not to create artworks though you can make tidy layouts. Also, Tinderbox has other view types. A suggestion, work in a different view type for a bit so you’re not trying to draw to the detriment of the thinking. It’s a learning phase I definitely went through with the app. I only started to get best use of the view once I stopped viewing it as a diagramming space.

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