Tinderbox Forum

How to do basic things - not the the theory of the Tinderbox Universe

Hi there, you are correct. This is an issue of vocabulary. When I look at the toolbar I think of it as “navigating,” i.e. moving between to views. These two steps, find the toolbar and the formatting ruler were one of the hardest “newbie” things for me. I eventually stumbled across them and then had to keep remembering how to get them back.

Note: Being able to customize the toolbar by adding personally desirable system elements like the Ruler or custom elements like often used staps, like @amahabal’s Alfred work, could be useful. But, it could also lead to feature keep and bloating. Now that I’m over the hurdle and am learning hotkeys, I appreciate the starkness of the zen-like Tinderbox interface. The surface is clean and smooth; all the power and insight is to be found within.

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I find it interesting to note just how different people are in this. To take your tip from above, I don’t think I have ever used the Ruler in Tinderbox (in more than ten years), and have never felt the need to do so because I do not really format anything in the Text pane. (Hence the tip would not have been of any use to me personally as a beginner.) I do sometimes use bold or italic, but apart from that almost nothing. I would usually try to keep any note to a maximum of about 70 words, so there is not much to format. But I am sure that people working in other fields would find formatting a crucial part of the meaning of any note, so I am not advocating doing without it just because I have no use for it. However, a “For Dummies” is not an easy thing to put together for such an open program as Tinderbox, which gets used for so many different things.

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Amen. All the work styles being described are valid, yet differing and what suits one doesn’t suit all so I’m yet to be convinced there is a simple common denominator. Text users in the community range from those who don’t like that the text pane isn’t really a word processor module to folk who don’t see the point in even italic/bold as they only use plain text or HTML, markdown, etc.

. The chick-and-egg problem is people want to learn the app from the context of some other—usually an app with which they’re more experience. This means few are prepared to embrace the app as a toolset but rather want to be handed (only) the subset of tools they imagine are pertinent to (just) their perspective. This is all the more ironic as often the things they describe themselves wanting are not in their desired toolset, leading to circular argumentation of why can’t the app be more like X. Ugh.

I’m happy to stick with writing the facts down, not least as that alone takes the spare time a have for the task.

Every time I see a description making it simple I just see all the unstated assumptions and the way the method would completely confuse others. This in not a right wrong, but how inclusive one is prepared to be that other folk work in different styles

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In addition to the other excellent guidance from @mwra @PaulWalters @MartinBoycott-Brown @Sylvaticus @latinhypercube @doublem @amahabal @satikusala and others here, let me add the strongest possible emphasis to the point above.

Hierarchy is a natural style-of-organization, for those of us accustomed to working in outlines, in classification structures, and in many other forms of work.

In Tinderbox, hierarchy is usually not your friend.

The challenge with hierarchical organization is that any individual note can exist in one and only one container. It can have only one “parent” note. It can have only one “descended from” path. In a map view, the “original” note, ie not an alias produced by an agent, can appear on a map only with others within that same container.

In “normal” outlining, that discipline of a strict hierarchy is often useful. But in Tinderbox, where you often want any individual note to have a wide variety of connections and be part of various linkages, tools other than the hierarchy itself are generally most useful.

  • For some people, the most useful way to make those connections is through links. I don’t use links that much.

  • For others, including me, the most useful organizing tool is a range of attributes, whose results as displayed either through the Attribute Browser or via agents (whose results are shown in resulting outlines, map views, time lines, attrib browsers, or whatever).

  • The trait that links all these different approaches is “virtual hierarchies,” and “virtual containers.” Ie, in “normal” hierarchies you might have a certain note included in an “Events” container–but you might also want to view it as one of several items within a “Calls to Make” container, or an “XYZ Company” container, or a “Major Projects” container, etc. If you use attributes–fundamentally, a more flexible version of “tags” or “keywords”–rather than normal hierarchies as your main organizing tool, you can create any virtual hierarchy you want.

  • If you check back on this thread from several years ago, How to use the Attribute Browser, you will see a lot of more detailed explanation of using the Attribute Browser.

  • What does this mean in practice? For me, most of the notes I enter are in the same catchall container, “Entries” or whatever, depending on the file. The only ones for which I create additional containers and hierarchies are where there are very specific sub-steps or sub-elements for an item. Eg, note might be: “Plan for Trip to China,” and the sub-steps would be “Check China visa” and so on.

The TL;DR of this whole post is: Even if your natural inclination is, like mine, to think of outline-style hierarchies as a basic thought-organization tools, recognize that Tinderbox is often at its best when least hierarchical.


100% true.

Except when it’s not :slight_smile:

As everything else with Tinderbox: it depends. If a user needs an outline and is not attempting to correlate notes one-to-another, then an outline can be fine and Attribute Browser can be used side by side as another way to view notes. If a user is building a set of notes to export, then an outline is just fine – and somewhat essential for blog or Word or website or other highly structured exports.

Not to be a curmudgeon about this, but I’ve lots of document that are definitely best done in Tinderbox and definitely best done as hierarchies. And others that do not require outlines.

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Hello Sylvaticus:

Is there a video you are referring to, and if so do you have link?

Agree. Everything in Tinderbox depends on the user, the use, the particularities, etc.

(A blessing that can initially seem … if not a curse, at least a challenge.)

For me, personally, when I am making straight outlines, I’m often using a straight outliner, like OmniOutliner, or maybe Scapple. So my own uses of TB are more likely to be of the connecting-things-in-varying-ways type. But always YMMV.


It’s also worth noting the effects of scale. A map with 50 notes is great, 5,000 notes is a different matter. As the number of notes grows, the abstraction of ideas and topics into discrete attributes (as described above by @JFallows) becomes a more important tool. I also find that as the note count grows (my research docs have c.5k notes) pragmatically, an outline becomes the most effective organisational/storage method. If that sounds constraining, it isn’t. You can use AB view (for attribute data) and hyperbolic view (if making explicit links).

So another axis along which “it depends what you are are doing”. :slight_smile:

We are, I fear, straying into the theory of the Tinderbox Universe despite the OP’s desire not to go there, but allow me to just add that one of the strengths of Tinderbox is that it allows you to start with one type of organisation or structure of the data and morph to another if that is later revealed to be expedient or useful. I was reflecting on this today, as I started out a file by beginning to arrange things in a hierarchy, knowing that I would later turn this into another kind of arrangement when I was able to distinguish the wood from the trees. No doubt it would also be possible to go from Attributes to hierarchy if necessary.

It seems to me that it is important for the new user to know that they do not necessarily have to decide on an organisational method for their data before they start out. That is perhaps the biggest difference between Tinderbox and other sorts of program. Incremental formalisation.

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You are so spot on with this:

This means few are prepared to embrace the app as a toolset but rather want to be handed (only) the subset of tools they imagine are pertinent to (just) their perspective.

In hindsight, I think this is why I’ve had my 7 years + 3 weeks journey with TBX. I’ll look back at this time as BTBXE (Before Tinderbox Enlightenment) and ATBXE (Afer Tinderbox Enlightenment). It was not the tool, but me that was the problem, me that had to change. My approach was off. I was carrying so much pre-conceived baggage and expectations to the tool that there was no way it could succeed in solving my problems. I first had to change. I had to wipe the slate clean, get a begginers mindset, not just with TBX but with how I am approaching my problems…how I communicate, track, use language, use other tools, etc. Now that I’ve made this shift I am seeing fundamental changes everywhere. Not just with using Tinderbox, but also with use with other tools, who I communicate; the veractiy, volume, and value of both my inputs and outputs has significantly improved. I would say, now between the 6 TBXs I’ve setup, I’m spending 80% of my work day in TBX capturing and currating knowledge and only 20% of it in other tools (email, excel, PPT, word, phone, zoom) to refine the output that comes out of my TBX files.


The above is key! It is what you want. You want a tool like Tinderbox to be able to adjust with you as your thinking matures, not the other way around. Per my comment in another thread I find that I’m often the one putting the constraints of expectation on Tinderbox vs. the other way around. As soon as I drop my exceptions the answer often comes, but then it may take me time to implement the answer.

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Yes, just want als0 to underscore that for me, grasping this point was the main “aha!” moment long ago. (I started using the program around the time I switched from the ThinkPad world to the Mac world, while living in China back in 2008. For the only time in my life I was quite sick then, and as a present someone gave me a MacBook Air, which I figured I was morally obliged to learn how to use.) Before that I had used a series of “info organizing” programs: the sublimely elegant Lotus Agenda in the MS-DOS era, Zoot software under Windows, then Tinderbox.

You put the information into Tinderbox – in whatever way you want, with whatever extra material you want (“tags,” hierarchy, links, visual cues) – and then you get a look at it, in whatever slice or arrangement or relationship you want. It’s hard to think of another program that is quite so free-form.

The idea that this is an endlessly malleable system for looking at info is the hardest part to get used to–really, it takes deciding, on your own, to change something about a file (categorizations, attributes, views, you name it) that you hadn’t imagined when you created it. Once you do that, you think–whoa! I can keep on doing that.


I agree…that is what makes this forum so terribly interesting. :slight_smile: Per @mwra comment I find that Ruler comforting, initially at the beginning for its familiarity. I am finding that I’m using it less and less, but I still like it there for bullets. But, it may just be a mental crutch.

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I think this might actually be one of the killer features of writing with nvUltra, Obsidian, and Roam Research! As I write, it may occur to me that I need or want an article about x. As I’m writing I wrap x in double brackets and I now have a link—but no article (document) exists until I click on it, thus creating the document!

It’s the ultimate shorthand. And it allows me to acknowledge (respects?) that I have a branched thought I want to spin off and pursue—after I complete the thought I’m creating and writing right now! If I decide that the branched thought I want to create is more powerful and more important to capture while the muse is upon me (:stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:), I can follow that branch instead.

I’ve been playing with all three apps, and I can’t say how much this ability has helped!


This is exactly the problem I’ve had for years, and Tinderbox, nvUltra, Obsidian, and Roam Research are guiding me out of this problem.

I have to say that keywords (tags) have provided tons of flexibility, not just in notes I create but in my task manager too. I use OmniFocus. I can slice and dice tasks 100 different ways depending on how I want to display (or share) what I’m doing.

I’m looking forward to grokking what Mark and Paul keep repeating about the power of attributes!

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Yep! I’m so sorry, John, that I’m behind in all the posts!!

Here’s the link from our 2020-09-19 meetup:

Map view and hyperbolic view allow you to drag a link onto the background and make a new note. In Map view if you make a text selection and drag from the text pane link park to the map background that makes a new note with a text link from the first note.

This explains another disconnect. Most people tend to only think of the app from a single input perspective. To the ardent typist everything is/should be a key input so the link drag method gets boos. To the ordinary typist, most of the extended syntax of ziplinks doesn’t help as the menu closes or auto-finishes in odd ways if—as may be natural—mouse and key inputs are mixed. Some folk can’t do without RTF, others want only plain text, etc.

I think that unpicks the point about making implied links, i.e. wiki-type [[ link mark-up for a note/agent not yet made. That makes some sense in a wiki, as it has no index or hierarchy and only the links you give it. The ‘red link’ is a wiki affordance to get around the fact you can’t see what isn’t yet there and in fact you can’t ‘see’ it at all as you only view a single page at a time.

Tinderbox has all sorts views that means if you need a note you can easily link to it or add new linked content. This leads to the next aspect of such branching work: new (side) notes are “too time consuming” “break the flow”, etc. I’ve heard the debate many times over in the forums and whilst I’m all for everyone following their own style, some of these justifications about how a feature ‘must’ work seem a bit post hoc and instead more readily reflect where people previously did their work. The tools we use shape our perceptions, make us productive where we embrace them, yet also blind us as to other possible approaches. We then invest as much/more time justifying our acquired assumptions than we do learning [sic] things that might help. Thus, at times the forum feels like working in a cheese shop where the customer only ever wants to buy fish, and despite the sign over the door saying ‘cheese’ they are sure there is fish but it’s just being hidden from them. :slight_smile:

Habits are hard to break!

I think the ‘maturation’ of granularity and abstraction goes like this:

  • Titles used as text (i.e. very long titles)
  • Discover there is $Text. Now try shorter titles and lots of text. But, everything becomes a text search (regular expression, for granular search work are not easy to master).
  • Other apps have ‘tags’ Yay, Tinderbox has $Tags too! Now we start putting various bits of info into $Tags. Now all the tags are in one (per note) un-segmented tag bucket. Again, searching becomes as much about excluding false positives as things finding things we want. Do your tags on Ovid or patient diagnosis need to use the same bucket as your grocery to-do? Probably not. If only…
  • Aha! User attributes. Now discrete strands of tags can ‘live’ in discrete buckets, even if we just treat them as tags. Master Yoda nods approvingly.

Cool result. With the last step new achievements are unlocked in your Tinderbox usage development tree:

  • Now we have scope for much more targetted search, as we can target just one attribute (or more if we choose) rather than the bigger target of all $Tags or all of $Text.
  • With information in these user attributes, they are more easily showing in Displayed Attributes (i.e. attributes displayed in a note’s text pane), or shown in column view (in Outlines and Attribute Browser (AB) view), and can be used to fine tune things like AB view or Crosstabs view.

Yet, no one has to use all these features. If just making notes on a map with no $Text works, then it’s likely good enough! But for those who want or need it, more depth is on offer.


Good information thanks for sharing


Hi @MorpheusTinderBox, I stumbled across this post and wanted to share this with you: Meetup 18SEPT21 Lesson 1: Blogging [Basic] with Tinderbox - Setting the foundation. We are kicking off a course, through the lens of blogging, to address your fundamental question “how to do basic things in Tinderbox.” I think you’ll find it valuable.

Seeing this post now is crazy. Amazing how much can change in a year. I’ll have to remember this. I’m excited to see what next year brings.