The Tinderbox Way: what do you like?

I mentioned elsewhere that I’m working on a supplement to The Tinderbox Way, a new book in which I might explore some of the ideas behind some of Tinderbox’s newer developments.

Thinking about The Tinderbox Way, I’m surprised by how much people like it. I’ve never really understood why. Now, thinking about a new volume, I worry that I might excise or skip the thing people principally like.

So: I thought I’d take the liberty of asking here. What is it that seems to resonate?


Way back, when I first read it, the book covered both the how and the zeitgeist of why. I found that very useful. since then I’ve read v1/v2—and proofed v3—and I believe there have been versions since (I only have v1/v2). But I do think it helps explain what @eastgate, as the creator of Tinderbox, intended in making the app.

This is actually helpful. Understanding the why is especially helpful with ‘artisanal’ software, especially in an age where we are easily triggered by a departure from the style norms (as decided by whom?).

Disclosure: I took a different but complimentary take on the subject … in aTbRef!

So yes, more The Tinderbox Way is good and grounding for its users. Deep tools benefit from deep discussion/exposition.


I read TTW only in its 3e and when I was relatively new to Tinderbox. The thing I liked most was the high-level discussions of thinking with software: how software affordances augmented or made possible practical modes or activities of thinking. Chapter 27, Discovered Geometries and Chapter 8, Emergenert Structure are examples of this. I also found the design notes illuminating, for example “Tinderbox Designators,” because they both explained Tinderbox in depth but also showed how you had addressed specific design problems. These were the kinds of discussions that I suppose initiated me into the “Tinderbox Way.”

Where I did not find TTW useful was in those chapters that nominally explained how to use Tinderbox–the places were it was an ersatz manual. These were always too superficial to be a good return on the investment of time. The overview sections of ATBRef functioned much better for this purpose.

If I were to say what I’d like to see in a supplement, it would be one macro topic and one micro topic. The micro topic regards Chart View. You once wrote in a forum post that you had expected Chart View to be used very much, perhaps as much as Map and Outline Views. I do not recall your discussing Chart View at length in TTW. I can guess at why you thought it would be important. Chart View gives some spatial affordances, albeit quite constrained and orthogonal, while retaining some of the structure and intermediate disclosure. However, I’d like to know your thoughts: why do you think it is good, why did you think it would be used as much, etc.?

The macro topic is much more of an update on how your thinking about Tinderbox has changed in the last few years. What guided the changes you’ve made, what is guiding the changes you expect to make? To what extent have the changes that have arisen been responsive to external factors (commercial selection pressure perhaps) and to what extent have you directed the evolution of Tinderbox? More generally, how has your conception of what we can do with Tinderbox shifted, if at all?

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I like the combination of technical (how things work, how to write action code…) and the more “philosophical” material. As examples of the latter, I recently re-read “The nature of the paint” and “Art and engineering”. Those don’t directly address how to do something in Tinderbox, but rather the thinking that lies behind the whole tool, and, indeed, to making notes more generally. I also refer frequently to the “map grammar” Tinderbox document that you produced, because I find the entities set out there to be relevant to the way that I think. So, a new book that addresses these issues would work for me. FWIW I’m a relative novice when it comes to “those chapters that nominally explained how to use Tinderbox”. So they all gave me something to work with. Indeed, they are all the better for encouraging me to think carefully about what is written, because I understand better by doing that.

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I’ll add a +1 to @mwra on this – I have read each edition of TTW as it came out and I have re-read it from time to time over the years. The things that makes it valuable (to me) are the big picture ideas. The philosophy, the logic, the system as a whole (I’m an academic so I love that kind of stuff) – the why as others have said. I don’t really need a use manual since there are other resources for that (yay aTbRef!), but the download into narrative book form of @eastgate 's vision for thinking with software and the ways in which specific aspects of Tinderbox are instantiations of those ideas in application form are always insightful.

I’m in the middle of reading it, while learning to use Tinderbox (partly by taking notes on the text).
As someone who’s spent an unhealthy length of time thinking about how to take notes (while being generally terrible at taking them - the biologist’s curse), I appreciate how the book shows that Tinderbox has an opinionated design while being philosophically commited to getting the user to make their experience personal, and I appreciate how it gives motivating examples.


Great quote!


What I like about the book is its relaxed tone. It is a pleasure to read, and so I have found myself frequently going back to it and browsing a bit around, looking for inspiration and things that I could add to my practice in the app. I also like that it has a lot of practical examples.

Extending those examples by some of those which have been discussed in the Tinderbox meetups in recent months and years could be a good idea. Tinderbox can be used in very different ways, from rather simple to quite complex settings for doing one’s work. Perhaps bringing some ideas in from the “Michael Becker School of Tinderbox” (as @eastgate called it once), might be a good idea for an addendum to the book or a new volume.

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I agree with all the above comments so I will not repeat here. I have read each version of the TTW several times and each time I seem to pick up something new.

What I would like to see in this version is at the end of each chapter some examples problems / use case examples one should try to work through to apply the lessons in the chapter. Answers could be referred back to the forum or could use some exemplary cases from the forum as workbook type of problems.

The point: I think it is important in a book like the The Tinderbox Way to DO SOMETHING to apply what you have read passively. You need to be actively involved and transfer what you have learned. I think a few use case problems would go a long way.



I have enjoyed every edition of The Tinderbox Way, and read them all more than once. I am going to be contrary on the suggestion to add examples, however.

Most importantly, examples might scratch an itch to “show me how”, but rarely meet the specific needs of a specific reader. Some might take examples as requirements, or “this is the approved way to do this thing”, but, especially for Tinderbox, that’s never true. The Tinderbox forum has always served the needs of anyone who can describe their needs and goals, but is unsure of how to accomplish a solution in Tinderbox. If anything, The Tinderbox Way should continue to be a guide and goad to how to describe needs and goals, and then point the user to the forum, or the meetups, for tailored advice to satisfy the needs and meet the goals.

And, practically, The Tinderbox Way is frozen in time – but Tinderbox evolves rapidly beyond that point. So, it’s likely that any examples given will soon age out and not take advantage of current features.

Finally, I am not a fan at all of the current trend in the “tools for thought / note taking” space on the internet for self-appointed guru influencers to cobble together videos and examples and sell them (often for exhorbitant prices) to folks who might be not willing to learn on their own through the best route: trial, failure, and retrial.

The Tinderbox Way is in the “teach them how to fish, and let them figure out the rest” school, which the internet needs more of, and that’s why I like it just fine as is.


I remember clearly the day I received my copy ot The Tinderbox Way. For a long period of time, I kept as a trophy the envelope that contained it. It looked a little like the one below, but it had a nice US stamp if I remember correctly.

I read that first edition in the prospect of improving my English. So, I entirely read it aloud, not as a tutorial, but as a kind of philosophy, which sounded very weirdly for me since I teach philosophy: I did not understand in what sense a computer tool designed to take notes could be the matter of a philosophy. The chapter called Why is Tinderbox so complicated gave me an answer: what I prefer the most in Tinderbox is that, in a sense and especially when you start discovering it, it is nor — completely, I mean — ready to use nor — and precisely for that reason — locked into one only function. It is ready to be explored, adjusted, shaped, according to your needs and perspectives. That’s exactly the philosophy I found in The Tinderbox Way: what do you intend to do with Tinderbox? What will be your way of using it? As @PaulWalters said:

The Tinderbox Way is in the “teach them how to fish, and let them figure out the rest” school, which the internet needs more of, and that’s why I like it just fine as is.

Illustrated by screenshots, the case studies were particularly instructive for me:

  • “Figure 11. Mr. Sterne wants to tell you about MegaCorp’s new offsite training services.” (p. 53)

  • “Figure 16. If Perkins calls almost every month to arrange lunch, this message may itself be a useful prototype.” (p. 62)

  • “WiFi: Room 409. Figure 25. Priscilla selects text from the morning email and drags it into a dedicated Tinderbox file.” (p. 100).

The case studies are like reading an author that lets you imagine some secret parts of the story.


I want to reinforce @dominiquerenauld comments on the value of the case studies sprinkled throughout the book—they prove invaluable to us when exploring possibilities, the examples rely on simplicity to open doors to understanding, they remind us of common situations that relate to a task we may want to play with in Tinderbox. In short, they are accessible. I love the case studies. To add to @dominiquerenauld’s bullet points, only a few days ago I returned to The Tinderbox Way and found helpful guidance and learned something about the concept of Indirection here:

  • A new employee needs to find out the date (pp. 92.93). At the conclusion of the case study I learn that : “More generally, indirection replaces a value (1955 Day 169) with instructions for efficiently finding that value.” And so a simple case study reveals a broader principle that opens further doors to understanding, allowing me to imagine some secret parts of the story.