Tinderbox Forum

A TB Starter Kit?

I’m enjoying this conversation and I wanted to link to related thread from 2016.

I’ve had an off and on relationship with tinderbox. When I return after an absence it sometimes takes me awhile to re-learn how to do things. I find having well defined tbx’s is useful.

Mark - thanks very much for your perspectives, which make sense. Mark B had a similar suggestion: spend more time in the outliner, then leverage that. Appreciate the nudge!

I get it, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that should be solely on the shoulders of Eastgate to work out. May I propose that interested folks who have an idea or need submit these sort of starter docs, and let the community help refine them? Then Eastgate can put them someplace accessible to this forum.

… but wait, that sort of thing has been going on for many years – with the older Tinderbox weekend examples (don’t know where they are stored publicly but I have my own copies), plus samples provided by Eastgate (if you can’t find them today, the use the internet archive to find them, plus examples provided by @mwra and others of us, plus what @beck provided, plus @dominiquerenauld’s examples … plus … plus … plus.

(Personally, I don’t think the examples the FileMaker provides are relevant. First, FileMaker is a database builder and most people using databases know what that means. Even with that background, the FileMaker files are not necessarily easy to work with, in my experience. )

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I didn’t propose this in my original post. I also get the comments that creating “starter kits” can lead to more questions. I was merely trying to connect a related conversation in the spirit of creating links to help others. In that thread several people offered starter solutions.

One thing that draws me back to tinderbox again and again is the investment that everyone in this community makes to helping each other out.

Why I came to Tinderbox

I have been a fan of concept maps since I discovered CMapTools in the mid/late aughts (don’t quite remember exactly). As my PhD studies ramped up, I naturally wanted to map my coursework and researched options. CMap is still around but the software requires Java, is pixelated in appearance, and doesn’t seem to be actively built upon or improved. Looking for an alternative, I found many tools/examples that allowed one to endlessly riff on their thoughts, but none that helped to “think” them. Discovering Tinderbox, I knew I’d found something of power and interest, but I wasn’t able to imagine my own use cases until I discovered @SteveZ’s videos. Several :bulb:'s went off and I was running.

What do I do with Tinderbox

I use Tinderbox for many things. I use it to brainstorm, synthesize ideas, and make connections across scholarly contributions, such as publications, theories, or findings. My area of research is the attention economy and attention restoration, specifically how we design environments that restore and give us greater agency over our attention. Tinderbox serves as a documentation, reference, and generative space for my work in these areas. I also use TB to plan syllabi, grants, manage classes and students, and occasionally track projects. I’ve also done a bit of memory documentation, particularly using the timeline to chart my early memories to see where they line up with other events in my life.

Where do I want to go next

As my research ramps up, I’m beginning to use it as a qualitative analysis tool. I have visions of exploding text, assigning metadata through dragging to adornments, and creating agents that will help me make connections across various transcripts and writings from my research participants. I am grateful to have developed skills with the tool already, as I know data analysis will push my knowledge of the tool to its edges. Grateful also to @mwra for his documentation, as it’s always nearby when I’m trying something new.

Where do I want Tinderbox to go next

I am a fan of easy [[connecting one thing to another]] style syntax. I like that about The Archive and Roam, both of which I’ve played with but do not actively use. I find TB’s Quicklinks unpredictable and frustrating to use and would love if that part of the tool got a big shot in the arm, feature and UX-wise. :syringe:


Observation from this thread (perhaps banal):

  • People use Tinderbox in very different ways for different purposes and that is OK.
  • It is a powerful toolbox designed to do a few very useful things right out of the box and that is OK.
  • If you want Tinderbox to work to your very specific requirements (which it can), be prepared to do the hard work to make it function your way and that is OK.
  • Tinderbox might not be the best tool for what you are trying to achieve, but by trying it out in Tinderbox (and perhaps failing or giving up) it might help you to better understand what you need and that is OK.

I use Tinderbox to take what is in my brain about a topic and put it down in words. Once it is written down, I can expand upon it, break it apart, put parts back together, see inconsistencies, restructure it, enhance it with research. I use a tiny fraction of Tinderbox’s features daily and that is OK. However, I know that should I need additional capabilities, there is a wealth of tools/features (and a supportive community) available to help me.


Several years ago, many users of Scrivener bought Tinderbox when it was hyped on the Literature & Latte forum. Many of those people gave up on Tbx quickly and complained about their experience in the forum. I tried to tell them they didn’t need to know all the features of Tbx to get some good use out of it. As an example, I created a simple day planner template. Many people wrote to me to request a copy of the template.

This led me to believe most people who try Tinderbox and abandon it do so because they try to do way too much at the start. They’ve heard and read about all these amazing features and expect to be able to learn them quickly.

The theme of most of my posts and videos about Tbx since then is that you can get a lot of use from it just knowing some basic things. Start small and gradually learn more features as you go. As you do this you’ll uncover so many other purposes for Tbx that you may not have even conceived of at the start. This is the opposite approach to figuring out what you want to do with Tbx and building your document to achieve it. Both approaches are valid, of course, but I want to make sure that new users reading this and wondering just what they want to do with Tbx don’t have to feel like they have to conceive of wonderful uses to start with if that approach doesn’t work for them.

BTW, the videos made by Beck are fantastic.

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More than that, people who’ve heard about doing a particular function turn up expecting Tinderbox to be used optimised for that app and complain/give up when it becomes apparent that some assembly is required. I’ve lost count of the waves of “I expected the app to do X” unhappiness.

Actually, underneath all the noise, interesting ideas do come out. for instance, a current meme is use of Tinderbox for ‘zettelkasten’. Is the app designed for this use? No. Should it be? I hope not, lest over optimisation for a single workflow other be to the detriment of other uses. Can the app be used for this type of note-taking? Absolutely, if the user employs the relevant parts of the toolbox. However, the discussion of the mechanics of the process (i.e. abstracted from the overarching subject) has already lead to some significant ideas under test.

My observation over time is that the many people start (and remain) in the view that the tool or process (software, book, guru, whatever) defines what you do and the challenge is to find the ‘right’ tool after which success and riches beckon. Tinderbox actually optimises something different - exploration and consideration of your notes. All to often, threads setting out on the latter are derailed into angles-and-pinheads discussion of…process. :roll_eyes:

No one has to use action code, export templates, prototypes or the like to get value out of Tinderbox. The easiest people to help are those who ask how to do some small part of the mechanics of their work (how to find something; how to get A into the format of B, etc.). From such pieces robust and well-personalised document emerge.

I’ve used Tinderbox on and off for many years.

I’m fascinated by all the tools in the Tinderbox toolbox, but often lack the time and imagination to figure out how I might put many of them to practical use.

I have read with interest over the years the advice to start simple. That’s sound advice, of course. But, then, if one wants to keep things simple, aren’t there many simple, shiny alternatives that have a lower cost of entry? Why buy a Ferrari just for a trips to the neighborhood store?

As a result, I have ended up using Tinderbox for a few specialized, highly structured tasks such as importing a bunch of emails from Mail via AppleScript, chopping off the replies from original message, categorizing the messages, organizing them in various ways (by sender, theme, etc.) and outputting the result.

I think TB would benefit greatly from a few built-in “templates” (not export templates but “worked example” templates).

I cite Numbers as an example of another big toolbox-type app. Just what exactly IS one supposed to do with those empty grids of cells on a blank canvas? It’s intimidating. How does one even go about posing an intelligent question on the support forums?

For good reason, I think, Numbers includes a curated collection of simple templates. Numbers has evolved greatly, but most in the templates have not changed for years. Few users are under the illusion that these are the “only way” to do things. I suspect few actually use the templates directly. But the templates are invaluable, especially to the many users who learn best by example, for sparking specific ideas on how the tools in the toolbox can be used.


I think that is to misunderstand the advice. ‘simple’ is being used in the sense of understanding the building blocks. so for example, after building an agent with a complex query and action and not getting the desired result, a ‘simple’ approach is to start by deconstructed parts. Does the query work? If not, pare it back to the first term, test and see where it breaks. Fix, add another term, adding back the complexity as you go.

The advice has nothing to do with the simplicity of the finished TBX, beyond the fact that through close customisation it makes its creator’s task simple®.

Many app templates are primarily visual customisation, adding little informational value but just making things look pretty. The best TBXs I’ve seen are actually rarely visually beautiful. That’s not to embrace brutalism in data but rather to accept that real data is messy; in fact if it looks too pretty, it’s probably over simplified. Just fiddling with the ‘look’ (the visual aspect) gives aesthetic pleasure but not necessarily insight into the data.

The are, of course, a few contexts where a clarity of layout is needed, e.g. if planning a syllabus timetable to show to others (in Tinderbox). But, looking back over some years of looking at user’s stories I think this type of application is in the minority.

If we just want the computer to tell us what to do and make things look pretty, then there are lots of narrow-scoped utilities for that task. Ironically, the limitations of the such app are often the very reason why people turn to an open ended app like Tinderbox. Rinse, and repeat…

On a more upbeat note, if anyone wants to try out some data for experimentation, try out this ‘demo’ (a zip fie from my Dropbox) which investigates a data set of Beatles records: dataset via the Guardian newspaper (UK).


Isn’t that the normal experience in most contexts? Looking at a toolbox and wondering what to build can be frustrating.

On the other hand, starting with a job or a problem, imagining what tool would be useful, then exploring the toolbox for the best-fit options that fit the imagined tool can be challenging but far less frustrating.


FWIW, I started knowing nothing about Tinderbox but that it seemed to fit my way of thinking. I bought it so the sticker price would force me into use, but I had no immediate project. A kind user (Benoit Pointet) copied me their own notes on Tinderbox and that evolved into aTbRef. An initial push was making export templates to force me to understand export and co-incidentally enrich aTbRef with new documentation. A very meta exercise, but it makes the point, you need to do something. To get started.

I think a lot of people lose heart because they work backwards from some imagined end-point and then get frustrated that they can’t ‘just’ make that in a few minutes. More productive is to break down the end goal into functional tasks and assemble the end point from those parts. It also makes it easier for others to help as others don’t need to share our goal, yet can contribute their expertise with the individual aspects of process and tool use needed to get to our goal.

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The point on “simple” is well taken. Not just one step. Rather, a step at a time in a series of steps …

Nevertheless, with so many problems and so many purchased and unpurchased tools vying for user attention, on a growing number of platforms, a key issue, I think, is lack of time.

As with Numbers, a limited, curated collection of simple worked examples showcasing how different tools in the app can be used to address imaginary, simplified, “sort of real world” problems can really help people who learn fastest by studying specific examples.

I understand many helpful TB examples can be tracked down. But, as I think the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. Similarly, the best template is a template ready at hand––even if it doesn’t directly apply, won’t necessarily win design awards, doesn’t do full justice to the power and possibilities of the app, and hasn’t changed in years because the developer/designer is busy with other things.

Numbers. I think it fair to point out that Apple and Eastgate are not the same size nor have the same staff budget. I just tied some Numbers templates and reminded myself why they are really marketing collateral for tech journalists to see when quickly reviewing an app. The templates have no explanation. Take the ‘probability lab’ for example, you can’t even see where the spreadsheet grid is. How do you add an extra parameter, of can you only rename the existing ones. All this sort of template does is tell me I don’t know how to make one of these templates.

There are lots of Tinderbox demos floating around. My experience is very few try them; why I’ve no idea as people don’t say why they won’t engage. Yet, done with attention, they take a lot of time/cost—even if the cost is only other people’s free time. Also, big apps like Numbers or Excel change infrequently partly because at scale, consistency of experience trumps addition of new features. Change too much and all the collateral, Help, FAQs, etc need updating (though often those properties _aren’t’ updated. By comparison, Tinderbox—which is almost 20 years old—is under near constant growth and has assets that are updated.

Sure, you can open Word and ‘just’ type a letter. The state of most Word document show people don’t learn that either and the computer is assumed to understand formatting (the eye says otherwise).

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So, @sumnerg and others with a similar interest, I think it’s fair to ask on what topics would you want to see Tinderbox examples? As @mwra points out, it’s time consuming to do this sort of thing, and hitting the target is better than spending hours on a task and it falls silently in the woods.


Why I came to Tinderbox
Geez, so many years ago, I was looking for a flexible knowledge base/notetaking/whiteboarding/brainstorming application. I tried, and still love Zengobi Curio, but it’s interface kind of gets in my way, so I only really use it for concept mood boards and background research (websites, images), things like that.

I struggled to understand the concepts behind Tinderbox but recognized its power. Reading The Tinderbox Way opened my eyes and I began to experiment.

What I do with Tinderbox
So many, many things. Conference notes. Mental model sketches. I used it to brainstorm product names. I ran a global marketing department including reimbursements with it. Daybook. Zettelkasten.

One of the best things I did was a root cause analysis that resulted in a complete rework of an automation system. We sat down and wrote “I want” and “I hate” statements on stickies. I transcribed them, found patterns and links, and then used adornments to make a visual weighting of the overlapping wants/needs. Awesome.

Where I want to go next
I’ve been increasingly frustrated with my websites. I’ve tried a lot of CMS systems and all have left me dissatisfied. I want to be able to seamlessly export my posts without running through multiple databases/abstractions/hip new technologies. I looked at static sites like Hugo, but the toolchain is Markdown > Hugo > Forestry > Netlify > Github or AWS etc. Whatever happened to exporting to plain HTML? Tinderbox can do that, and I’m going to start digging soon.

Sometimes I use automation, sometimes I just visually place things around. Tinderbox’s strength lies in the fact that it just gets out of your way when it’s time to do the work, and Mark’s concepts of Information Gardening and Incremental Formalization is incredibly powerful for a creative knowledge worker.

Mark’s writings also pointed to the history of Hypertext and some fascinating concepts that never quite made it to the Web, sadly. Being able to use dedicated links like ‘supports’ or ‘reinforces’ or ‘outcomes’ or ‘banana’ makes the whole network exponentially greater. Follow the banana link trail, you’ll find your way home, Dorothy …

Do I get frustrated? Sometimes, but my handsaw doesn’t always cut right either. Do I stop using it for a while? Sort of, not really. But sometimes I come back to an old TB file and find really great things. Like a note that Mount Major is a good hike, or the jot: “Del McCoury Preservation Jazz Hall” in a map 5,6,7 years later. That is a joy. That is what hypertext is all about.

This turned out longer than I thought, but most love letters do.


I’m not sure I’d be focusing on “topics.” As with Numbers, illustrations of tools in the toolbox being put to some sort of use, whatever strikes the developer/designer’s fancy. The idea is to remove some of the time-consuming “friction” in learning how the tools work and what they might do. I’d recommend simple and easy to maintain as Tinderbox evolves. Wouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

And included with the app. No time to fossick through various different sources.

Ok, so, I was wrong to use “topics”. Got it. How about “what illustrations of tools would you like to see”?

My point is, someone needs to create these things with some target in mind.

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This is a familiar loop. No one is speaking in bad faith but there’s a disconnect. The scenario is like being a decorator and only being given guidance as to what’s wrong; success is judged only in the mind’s eye of the customer. That’s a hard ask.

For those providing demo/doc/tutorial assets it goes like this:

  • Here is a documented demo showing how to use the tool someOperator.
  • But it’s too abstract, how do I use someOperator?
  • OK, here is a documented demo showing how to use the tool someOperator in a to-do list.
  • But that’s no help if I’m making a zettelkasten.
  • OK, here is a documented demo showing how to use the tool someOperator in a zettelkasten scenario.
  • Yes, but it’s confusing as it doesn’t really match how I’m making my zettelkasten file.
  • demo provider retires to weep in a dark room.

† I’m not being unfair to those doing zettelkastens, I’m just citing a current usage meme at time of writing this. That meme drifts over time, today it happens to be zettelkasten.

I don’t know what the answer is. I do agree with @PaulWalters that is it very hard to write resources for or advice on topics that people can’t describe.

I note again, none of this implies bad faith on anyone’s part. :slight_smile:

Is guidance on “what’s wrong” a fair characterization of anything written here? :grinning:

My point, based on some years using and helping others with an app that, like TB, is used for addressing a mind-boggling array of different problems with an intimidating set of tools starting with the equivalent of a blank slate, is that templates (simple worked examples that are included right in the app) are a win-win for the developer, the users, and people trying to help out on the forums.

The templates just “appeared” without user input (a good thing because the vast majority of users don’t really know the tools and design philosophy and constraints). Most haven’t changed in years. They’re not perfect. They’re limited. Most are not that practical. I would only think of using one or two more or less “as-is.” But they’re really useful nonetheless.

This is just a suggestion to help people (including me) up the TB learning curve. There are lots of other wonderfully helpful resources already in various places. But I see a particular gap here, easily filled (if kept simple).

Just a suggestion though … :grinning:

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