Front-of-the-manual Tools

A Tinderbox file is like sculpture. You chip away at your project—first here, then there—slowly digging to find the shape of your specific problem and its logic.

It can seem hard because there are a lot of tools at hand. Some of them are complicated. And, in a sense, you are all alone: other people aren’t doing what you are doing and the Tinderbox files they use in their work are very different from the files you need for yours. So even when they offer advice, they can’t really tell you what to do. Not really.

My tendency is to assume that work would be easier if I could just master the complicated tools at the back of the manual. Yet, I find (and too often forget) that Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools—links and aliases for example—are flexible and powerful enough to work wonders. To show what I mean (and to remind myself when I’ll have forgotten in a couple months), I’ve prepared a mock-up of the TBX file I’m using to do my administrative work.

Starting Simply

A lot of administration boils down to managing meetings and reports. So when I created my file, I simply started adding container notes for for each of my upcoming meetings.

Starting with Meeting Notes
Starting with Meeting Notes

Notes for agenda items are placed in the meeting container; the container text is a typed copy of the agenda with in-text links to individual item notes. Basic, non-hierarchical prototypes set “File” as a key attribute allowing me to link to the pdfs of supporting documents that I have stored in the Finder. 1

As more meetings are added to the file, material discussed in earlier meeting often appears on agendas for later ones. Each time it does I link from that later meeting’s agenda item back to the container for the earlier meeting and link the earlier meeting’s agenda item to the agenda item note in the later one.

Cross-links Develop Progressively
Cross-links Develop Progressively

Making these cross-links requires no additional work because I have to go back to my earlier meeting notes when I prepare for the new meeting anyway. I simply make these links when I do. Yet despite being easy to make, their pay-off is huge: these cross-links capture my knowledge of my materials and are are fast and productive in use. When I click, my past work is there, supporting my current work.

Scale & Complexity

Tinderbox allows this very simple system of cross-links to scale easily. In the span of only two months, my TBX file looks something like this:

Complexly Interacting Complexities
Complexly Interacting Complexities

In one sense, this is pure chaos: dozens of different meetings and projects spread across three different organizational units (each kept open as a tab), all of which subdivide into numerous other units. It’s overwhelming. And yet, woven through the noise is a system of links creating sensible paths through the confusion.

Aliases supplement these links by letting me keep a note in the container for it’s original meeting while simultaneously placing it in the container for a new meeting. This allows me to access relevant material both through in-text cross-links as well as through the outline, where I can click on aliases directly.

More importantly, these links and aliases lower the bar for beginning to work on otherwise daunting tasks. When I have something to do or something to prepare, I click on the note for that thing and begin to work my links. I follow them, add to them, do what I can, skip over what I can’t and bit-by-bit I manage to chip away at the task at hand. And the notes, links and aliases I build up preserve the work I do. It’s a powerful system.

But Tinderbox…So Attributes & Agents

In my actual working file, the linking strategy I’ve described is fundamental. Yet once I had a few hundred notes, I saw that some info would serve me better if I moved it to user attributes that I then set to key attributes by prototypes so that I could see it easily. (Committee membership for people, for example.)

Then I had an idea and added a keyword attribute, making it a set. I then went through all my notes assigning keywords, adding new ones when I need them, selecting them from the dropdown menu when I could. This took some time, but I was shocked by how many notes took no keywords, shocked by how many notes weren’t important enough to merit keywords. (That counts as an insight.)

And then I created a few simple agents with a single query: $keyword=(“[one of my keywords]”) to pull out and group topical notes. This is the first complicated difficult thing I do in my Tinderbox file. Up to this point, everything else has been basic “create file, drag and drop, make alias or make a link” file-managment type stuff, most of it done in outline mode. Those links and aliases are still there and still fundamental, but these topical groupings added something new and useful.

The Point

So this is a long post, but my point, I guess, is that I’m drawn to back-of-the-manual tools. They are fancy, impressive, and seem to be where the action is. But Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools are the action too. Links and aliases make sense, are easy to use, and they can do great things, especially in cases where you’re bombarded with information and just need to keep your head above water while you figure out how to move forward.


Update: I have explained how I make the links I discuss here in a new post.

  1. These pdf files sit in a work specific section of my hard drive that has a stable, date-based filing system so that links to the document files won’t be broken accidentally by moving the file to a new location. Topical organization is done in Tinderbox, not the Finder.
Front-of-the-manual Tools

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