Tinderbox as a Writer’s Tool

Tinderbox IconFor a year or so now, I’ve been evaluating quite a number of digital brainstorming tools in order to find one that best serves the way I think, the way I make associations, and the way in which I like to fiddle with vague and ethereal ideas before they become solid. I’ve tried plain text editors, wikis, various mind-mapping tools like NovaMind, FreeMind and Inspiration, outliners like OmniOutliner, and “notebooks” like Mori, AquaMinds NoteTaker and Circus Ponies Notebook, but none of these seemed to possess the right mix of power, visual layout, rapid entry, and emphasis on text.

And, oddly enough, the answer has been right under my nose for a while. I had been trying to force Eastgate Systems’ Tinderbox into becoming my digital Commonplace Book, but it was a poor fit for me. I required so much multimedia and OS X services support that I felt like I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and eventually I decided upon using DEVONthink Pro. While I have not regretted that decision for a moment, my inner geek still lusted after Tinderbox, having had fleeting glimpses of the power that lay untapped beneath its surface.

In a way, Tinderbox is like the Emacs of information management applications. Beneath each deceptively simple exterior (and, after all, Emacs does seem to be just a text editor), there lies a very powerful system with seemingly endless possibilities. Both require some effort and dedication before you begin to understand the depth of the applications and the myriad uses which slowly make themselves known as you explore their non-obvious capabilities. Like Emacs and its underlying elisp, Tinderbox has some powerful tools beyond the basic ability to write and organise text, and this case, it includes scripting tools, agents, rules, versatile export codes, prototypes and multiple views. And, unfortunately, just like Emacs, both applications are often relegated to niche power-users while mom-and-dad computer users have moved on to more straight-forward, simplistic and user-friendly software.

Let me get back to digital brain-storming for a moment. I’m a strange mix of visual tinkerer and textual thinker, and for me, things like colour, size and proximity of items have to strike a balance with text note names, hierarchy, and the ability to enter large amounts of material. For example, I like the ability to rapidly create notes as little boxes with various colours and short descriptive names, then move them around the various sections of the screen to play with categories and relationships. But once these categorisations are made, I want to be able to see the outline of all my ideas, and to write text and annotations for each item.

People who have used Tinderbox are no doubt grinning right now, as this is a perfect (albeit low-level) match for how this application works. By switching views between Map and Explorer views, one can create and place notes visually, and then structure them within an information-rich hierarchy. The latter, DEVONthink Pro can handle, but not the former.

So I started thinking, do I really need to do all of my outlining and writing in DTPro? Of course, the answer is no. Choosing the best tool for the job means evaluating each application on its own merits for the task at hand. For me, Tinderbox has become my brainstorming tool of choice. I like being able to create separate documents as “silos” for each subject matter. For instance, I just created one that outlined a number of business opportunities, and then I worked on another document with some ideas for the next generation of the D*I*Y Planner. These are things that I really don’t want in my DTPro Commonplace Book, at least not until I have something that I feel is somewhat solid and ready to be called “information”, as opposed to a loose but flexible array of insubstantial ideas.

In short, DTPro has become my collection bin for every conceivable type of multimedia information, but Tinderbox has become my repository for half-baked ideas, snippets of incoherent prose, mind-maps of categorical and causal relationships, and brain-dumps that are eventually (well, possibly) massaged into something I’d risk showing to other carbon-based bipeds. It’s for the act of textual creation, an invaluable tool for a writer.

Of course, like any other application, Tinderbox is not without its warts and unsightly blemishes. The price strikes many potential users as extraordinarily high –an initial regular cost of $192 USD, plus $90 per year of updates– but here I’d have to suggest weighing the value of your usage against its cost. Ted Goranson referred to Tinderbox as “a Photoshop-scale application that is underpriced” (and we all know how much Photoshop will set you back).

Other issues concern the documentation: unfortunately for those who learn best by studying example, the manual is structured more like a quick reference help file than any sort of tutorials on how to get the most out of the application. The Tinderbox wiki helps somewhat to fill the gap, but not much. Then there’s the nature of the beast: owing to the complexity of the application on one hand, people have a hard time understanding exactly what Tinderbox can do for them, and yet owing to its deceptive simplicity, others who try the demo write the software off as an expensive and underpowered waste of money. It has almost no support of modern OS X features like services, AppleScript-ability, tight Finder integration, and WebKit embedding (although this might be partly due to the fact that Tinderbox is being ported over to Windows, which lacks these things). And, while Goranson diplomatically called certain components of the application “austere”, others have commented (not unjustifiably) about its interface, which looks basic and somehow temporary, like software in its early alpha form. Supporters of the application are quick to point out that this lack of clutter allows one to focus on core tasks like writing with a modicum of distraction.

Finally, many people seem to have a problem with the fact that Tinderbox seems to be the product of only one man, Mark Bernstein, and that he’s not receptive to other ideas and feedback. From my (albeit limited) experience thus far, I’d have to disagree. True, the Windows port is taking quite a while, but it doesn’t really matter that much to me, since I use Macs most of the time. (My selfishness is showing here.) But looking at the broader vision of how Tinderbox works and what it can do for me, if I were to choose any one person to create such an application, Bernstein is an excellent choice. I have no doubt that he’s an incredibly intelligent man, and almost all of his decisions regarding the functionality of Tinderbox have been spot-on. In fact, I’ve been reading the manual as I fall asleep at night (highly recommended, although the subplots seem forced and the characters are a little two-dimensional), and I’m constantly struck by little eureka moments when I suddenly realise what brilliant little touches are present in the software, although sometimes hidden just beneath the surface. As for feedback, my few exchanges with Bernstein through email over the past couple of years, most of which transpired when I was experimenting with the demos of various versions, have been rapid, quite responsive and thought-provoking. He’s a man with a lot on his plate, but still takes the time to help confused newbies experiment with the demo, probably knowing full well that most of them will never buy. That earns my respect.

Which reminds me, if you do use a Mac and love to write or play with ideas, I’d highly recommend trying the demo, but only if you have enough time to put into understanding how it works; else, you’ll only scratch the surface of what it can do for you, and you’ll walk away from it either confused or disappointed.

These small gripes and oddities notwithstanding, consider me firmly in the Tinderbox camp. In all the various applications I’ve tried, both commercial and Open Source, I haven’t come across one that’s quite so attuned to the way I play with ideas and write text. I’m not sure if I think like Tinderbox, or Tinderbox thinks like me, but I know it’s an environment which encourages creativity without distraction, and yet feels wholly comfortable to use. A winning combination, indeed.

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