Taking the Information Plunge With Tinderbox

Tinderbox from Eastgate Systems, Inc. is an information management application notorious for its long, steep learning curve. Almost any review you read will hammer that fact to the point that many people are sure it’s beyond their ability to master. This is going to be a review for them, actually for us — because I was one of them.

I won’t deny that Tinderbox can be challenging. I’ve been using it for two years and still feel like a babe in the woods. But the message I want to convey with this review is that Tinderbox can be remarkably useful even if you never venture too far into its more advanced features. To shift metaphors, if Tinderbox is a swimming pool, this review is about the fun you can have even if you just splash around in the shallow end. So let’s jump in.


Screenshot 1: Planning a vacation with Tinderbox

The “Tool for Notes”

Eastgate calls Tinderbox “the tool for notes.” This is simultaneously a completely accurate description, and one woefully inadequate, kind of like calling the Apollo Program a trip to the Moon. All personal information applications handle notes in one form or another. The power of Tinderbox comes from its ability to display those notes in a number of different and helpful ways, and its array of mechanisms for manipulating those notes.

We’ll explore these two aspects of Tinderbox more a little further along in this review, but first I need to define just what makes up a Tinderbox note.

Tinderbox Note

Screenshot 2: Tinderbox note window defined.

A data file in Tinderbox is called a document. Documents are collections of notes and views of those notes. Notes are collections of attributes. Two of these are the note’s name (or title) and content. But there are many attributes, around 190 last count. Many of these you don’t have to concern yourself with: either you can’t alter them, such as the creation date, or they are updated automatically by the application as you manipulate the note, as when you set the color or change the position of the note. There are pre-defined attributes that remain inert until you want to put them to use, as with the event attributes of StartDate, EndDate and DueDate. All these pre-packaged attributes are called system attributes.

One of the powerful features of Tinderbox is that you can create custom attributes to handle information specific to your needs. Think of these as database fields. As with most databases, you can set the type of data a custom attribute can contain, choosing from string, date, boolean and list, among other options.You can set any attribute to be displayed in the note window, making them “key attributes.”

One other important point about notes before we move on. In the screenshot above, we are looking at the note text window. There is another dialog window that opens for editing the title, as well selecting other options and settings.

Note dialog window

Screenshot 3: When you first create a note, you will can set the title and other attributes through this dialog box.

If the inline editing option is deselected in preferences, this dialog will open when you create a note in the map view. Otherwise, you will need to select the note and type the “enter” key (function-return) to open this window.

Tinderbox has two sets of preferences; a global preference for all Tinderbox documents, and a document-specific preference. The latter takes precidence, so if you change something in the global preference and it doesn’t seem to be working, check the document preference (reachable under the Edit menu).

As there are several things you can do to change the way a note looks and behaves, you would find it very tedious to have to adjust these features over and over again in dozens of notes. That’s why Tinderbox is equipped with a function called “prototypes.” Create a note, get it to look the way you want — color, shape, key attributes — then set it to be a prototype (check the box in the note dialog). Now you can instantly use those same features on any other note in your document.

Outline View

Now that we know that the building blocks for a Tinderbox document are notes, let’s begin to examine how Tinderbox allows us to view those notes. There are several Tinderbox “views,” but I’m going to focus on the two you are most often likely to use: outline and map.When you create a new document, Tinderbox opens a blank outline view, essentially an empty white window. Just start typing and a new note is created with your text as its name.

When you’re done typing the text, hit return and that note is set. Hit return again and a new note is created, ready for you to begin typing the title. In this way you can quickly create a series of notes. You don’t need to worry about structure at this stage, because all the notes are easy to move around via drag and drop, and hierarchy is simple to build just by tabbing or shift-tabbing. Note names can be long, so this is an effective way to take quick notes during a meeting or in class. While there is no actual limit on how long note names can be, the practical limit is probably no more than a sentence or so, as it will be more difficult to edit longer names.

Outline View

Screenshot 4: Tinderbox outline view

To add more text to a note, simply select the note name and press the space key (or double-click on it). The note window pops up, and you can add detail in the content area.

Another nice feature of outline view is that you can add columns to view attribute data, such as DueDate or any custom attributes you may have added.

Tinderbox Outline with Columns

Screenshot 5: Tinderbox outline with exposed columns

Map View

Map view is Tinderbox’s signature feature, one that sets it truly apart from any other application. It’s a space to tack your notes, and other items to help make sense of those notes, but don’t confuse it with a mind mapper. A mind mapper displays hierarchy; Tinderbox’s map view does not (or at least not practically so).

This is important for understanding the relationship between the map view and the outline view. The map view displays notes (and other items we will soon learn about) that are on the same level and under the same parent. I’ll illustrate by making a map view of the outline which appears in screenshot 4.

There are eight notes shown in the outline, three at the top level, one subordinate to the second note, and four subordinate to that one. When I make a map view from this outline the result is the image in the following screen shot:

Tinderbox Map View

Screenshot 6: Tinderbox map view.

Notice that there are only three notes displayed. These are the top level notes from the outline. The second note, the one with the subordinate notes, looks different than the other two. That’s because it is actually a container — any note that has subordinate notes is known as a container.

In that screenshot, I’ve expanded the container and zoomed in, so you can see the sub note. In fact, you can even see that the sub note is also a container.If you double-click on the interior of the container — that is, the space that looks like it contains the sub notes — you’ll drill down a level. If you have a sub note selected in an outline, then choose to open a new map view (using the View menu), the map that appears will be drilled down to that level.

You can drag the notes around the map view at will, grouping them in related clusters. But with several clusters, it might be helpful if you could somehow mark off the territory. That is where adornments come in.  These are colored blocks that reside in the background of the map, to help create “territories” for your information. More on adornments below.

Putting It Together

Let’s put what we’ve looked at so far to use in an example. For a newsletter I publish, I recently wrote a short article about George Washington and his response to a correspondent during the American Revolutionary War. I collected the text of several letters and documents that exchanged hands among Washington and his correspondents. There were also details about the Washington’s situation at the time. To help me make sense of these notes, I created a map view that displayed these notes in a quasi timeline.

Tinderbox Map View

Screenshot 7: A map depicting events surrounding George Washington.

Note that I used three adornments to help me organize my information. The top adornment functions just as a label. But the other two gave me space to separate the type of information into events and correspondence. After I put my notes in a rough chronological order, I had a much clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding Washington’s letter. But for further clarification, I was able to add relationship links.

Map Detail

Screenshot 8: Tinderbox map detail.

Putting Prototypes to Use

Let’s look at another example. I am trying to do a better job tracking the films I watch. Tinderbox is a perfect helper. I can, for instance, go to IMDB.com, find the movie I want, then drag the URL onto the Tinderbox map view to create a new note, with the URL attached.

I have already created a prototype called “film.” Any note can be a prototype (set in the note dialog box), which then makes it fast and easy to assign its attributes to any other note. My film prototype has key attributes for Title, Director, Genre, Date Seen, Rating, and Viewing (i.e. In the theater or on DVD).

After I’d created a number of entries, I realized I wanted to add a key attribute for the actors. All I had to do was add that field to the key attributes of the prototype, and it was automatically added to all my other entries that had “film” as their prototype.

Film Note

Screenshot 9: Tinderbox note detail

Get Yourself an Agent

Now I want to visually distinguish films based upon their rating. That’s easy to do with an agent. Agents in Tinderbox are special notes that continually look for other notes that match specified criteria and then perform some action on them, sometimes only collecting copies, known as aliases. Below is the dialog for creating an agent.

Tinderbox Agent

Screenshot 10: A Tinderbox agent

Note that you can either type in the code for the query or use the control provided by Tinderbox to build the code — the latter method is what I tend to use. After creating agents for each of the five ratings I use for my film reviews, my map now looks like this:

Tinderbox Messy Map

Screenshot 11: Tinderbox map after creating agents to color-code notes based upon rating.

An Adornment is More than a Pretty Face

I want to clean this up. I could easily move the notes around manually — and sometimes I like to do that, as it helps me think about my notes — but in this case, I’ll create adornments to automate the cleanup. As mentioned above, an adornment is a background map feature that fences off sections of the map for clearer organization. But they are a little more than that, as we can add a query, just as we can to an agent, to gather notes to the adornment. Here’s what the dialog for that looks like:

Adornment Dialog

Screenshot 12: Tinderbox adornment dialog.

Once I’ve created my adornments, my map has a much tidier appearance:

Neat Map

Screenshot 13: Tinderbox map after adornments tidy things up.

Notes Have Aliases

Agents find matching notes, can act on those notes — i.e. As in changing the color, which is one of the simpler actions — and also capture aliases of those notes, which makes the agent a container holding those copies. So I can use agents to help me visualize my movie information in a variety of ways. The screenshot 14 below shows the results of an agent capture of films I’ve classified as dramas. Note how the names are now in italic. This indicates they are aliases of the original notes.

Drama Films

Screenshot 14: An agent captures alias versions of notes that meet specific criteria. Here films that are dramas.

Other Views

We’ve looked at the outline and map views of Tinderbox, which to me have always been the most useful. However, Tinderbox provides several other methods for finding new perspective on your notes.

If you like a more traditional two-pane layout for your outlines, one with the note content visible along side the tree-structure, select the explorer view.

Explorer View

Screenshot 15: Tinderbox explorer view.

The map view shows one level of information at a time, while the chart view gives you a diagram that reveals the hierarchical structure of your notes… a visual version of your outline.

Chart View

Screenshot 16: Tinderbox chart view

The treemap view will display your entire document with the hierarchy depicted as boxes within boxes. I have yet to figure out what use this is, but I’m sure it has one or would not be included as an option.

Treemap View

Screenshot 17: Tinderbox treemap view

Finally, one of the newest features of Tinderbox is the timeline view. This is a formal, chronological diagram based upon the StartDate and EndDate attributes of your notes. There are several aspects of the timeline view function that I do not have the space to write about here, so I’ll just let the screenshot do the talking:

Timeline View

Screenshot 18: Tinderbox timeline view

The Challenges of Tinderbox

Tinderbox is an inspired application, one that provides functions I’ve never seen in any other information management software. But it can be frustrating at times, and not just because its advanced features sometimes feel a little out of reach for mortal man (or at for least me). It is frustrating because even simple tasks can result in some inconsistent behavior or it is not readily apparent how to do them.

As an example, when I was demonstrating my film review notes earlier, I mentioned that I dragged the URL from the IMDB web site onto my map to create a new note for any particular film. That sounds easy, but I stumbled two ways with this. First, about half the time the drop didn’t “take.” That is, a note wasn’t created in the map, and I’d have to try again. Usually, after a couple of tries I could get the note to appear. But there seems no rhyme nor reason to why it works sometimes and why it does not. I’m sure there is a reason, but I can’t figure it out and was unable to get any help on the user forum.

When I clicked to open one of the notes created with the URL drag and drop it would also automatically launch my browser and go to the linked page. This is annoying when, most often, I just wanted to view and edit the note itself, but it wasn’t obvious to me how to change it. I finally learned from the user forum that there is an attribute called ViewInBrowser that is automatically set to “true” on dragged in URLs and has to be changed to “false.” Using an agent I quickly flipped that setting on all my existing film notes, and all new film notes will change automatically when they are created. Now the web page only opens for a specific note when I tell it to.

Anyone using Tinderbox is going to run across issues like this continually. The key to Tinderbox happiness is to see them as challenges and not stumbling blocks. The more you use Tinderbox, the more you begin to understand how it works and the more quickly you can find solutions. The user forum is invaluable in this regard. Post a question and you get a response usually within an hour or so.

Buying In

Mark Bernstein is the driving force behind Tinderbox. He calls himself the chief scientist at Eastgate Systems. I mention this because I think it offers a glimpse of Bernstein’s aspirations for his software. In Tinderbox, Bernstein isn’t simply designing an information manger. He’s looking to create a new paradigm for how people interact with that information. Has he succeeded? I don’t know, but I love that he is trying.

Learning Tinderbox requires an investment in time. Owning Tinderbox is also an investment. It cost $249, which includes a year of free upgrades, although from time to time Eastgate runs a special, which will get the price tag under $200. After your first year, upgrades will cost you $98 a year. The software is updated frequently and significant new features are still being added — the timeline view was added in version 5.6.

Using Tinderbox can be exasperating at times, but it is also often exhilarating. I don’t use Tinderbox as my primary information manager, but when I need to play chess with my notes, it is the first place I turn. It has helped me solve many an information riddle, and has been more than worth my investment.

If you like some of Tinderbox’s features but not enough to pay the full price, you might want to look at Eastgate’s Twig. It has the outlining and mapping features of Tinderbox, along with a nifty note-taking interface somewhat reminiscent of Notational Velocity. It currently costs $78, but be warned that the export functions are severely limited.

Alternatives to Tinderbox

Screenshot 19: No other single software application does all that Tinderbox does

Summing it Up

This has been a long review, and yet I have only skimmed the surface of what you can do with Tinderbox. I’ve tried to show you how Tinderbox can be extremely useful even if you don’t plunge all the way in. The techniques I’ve demonstrated are really very easy. And the active Tinderbox forum is a great resource when you get stuck.

Coming up with a rating for Tinderbox has been a challenge. On the one hand, many people will find its functions esoteric and difficult — at best — to master. For them a rating of six might seem high. But others who have mastered the arcane scripting will tell you no other tool matches Tinderbox for versatility and power for managing information and notes. But Tinderbox can be very valuable for those like me who eschew the more complex scripting features, but are willing to approach the software with patience and persistence.

Because I am impressed with the mission of Tinderbox, because I think it is genuinely inspired, I am giving it a rating of nine out of ten. But do not take my word for it. Download Tinderbox. Try it out. Read all you can about it. Then make the decision for yourself if it is worth your software dollars.


A powerful, versatile and ingenious note management application that rewards patience and persistence with its quirks and learning curve.