Aug 072015

The Faulkner hypertext that I’ve been making in Tinderbox and that I’ve spoken about a few times is now online.

It’s far from perfect, but that’s fine. It’s my first stab at this kind of writing and I wrote it as an experiment. I wanted to discover what was involved in writing something that 1) could be read in various sequences, 2) by someone sitting at a computer. I also wanted to find out 3) if I could, at the end, when the writing was finished, produce something that could be posted online. Or was that all-important final step beyond me?

Importantly, none of these had anything to do with Faulkner. So why choose him as a subject? Well, because I already had a text close at hand. Working with it, I expected I’d be able to focus on the three concerns above right away without worrying too much about the basic writing problems involved in going from nothing to something.

As it turned out, this choice had one additional advantage: I know what it took to pull material from so many different sub-field of research into a coherent, linear structure. I remember the difficult choices required and the pattern I struggled to develop and then to work within. Making the hypertext involved breaking that pattern, undoing those choices in order to create a different structure. The difference was vivid as I worked, sometimes to the point of being overwhelming.

The Hypertext

What I have online right now is not in the end what I expected and my worries are not those that I had anticipated. Still, it’s a first ever attempt to do something like this and I’m fine with it.

My concerns? The hypertext is incomplete if by complete, I mean “containing the information in my dissertation.” I did have dreams early on of having everything, but it was a waste of time to work toward that. I could lose my life rewriting and reordering a text I was done with (concretely and intellectually) years ago. Then a few days ago, I realized I was avoiding number three above: export. Deep down, I didn’t expect to be able to come up with anything usable from my Tinderbox file and that was going to be a crushing blow. I was avoiding the moment when it would hit.

So I bit the bullet, cut materials, linked back from dead ends where I found them, left quite a few long notes I’d planned to break up whole, and then last night (less than 24 hours ago!) sat down to see what I could get out of my Tinderbox file.

It was a revelation.

Tinderbox’s export is jaw-droopingly, amazing. I have never written HTML to create a web page, much less a site. Yet with an HTML/CSS book at hand as reference and few hours work Tinderbox spit out the pages currently online. Are they beautiful? No. But that’s me not having any sense of web colours and fonts (because zero practice, duh). And better yet, export is so easy that revisions of the site are no big deal. I made several before going to bed.

All of which means I now know that I can write in Tinderbox, and Tinderbox will give me sturdy, legible pages to post when I’m ready. That’s a game changer!

Source v. Hypertext

I’ve noticed that the hypertext makes the contribution I offer in my dissertation implicit rather than overt. For my project, I didn’t discover a lost text or dig through a trove of recently discovered letters or manuscripts. I took three marginal segments of Faulkner studies coordinated their linked parts and set the whole within its biographical and historical context. The result was a clarification of how an important but misunderstood part of his development as a writer worked.

Here’s the thing: the hypertext links I created often replaced the transitional material I had used to explain and coordinate material. As a result, what had been a slide show became a room with various things on separate (but related) display. Illustration was in a sense replaced by collage. That’s interesting but leaves the hypertext feeling a bit obvious to me.

I do, now that I’m done, have some concerns about the scholarly apparatus of the hypertext. I adapted my dissertation text with an eye to learning about hypertext, not because of a burning need to create an online Faulkner resource for the globe.I tried to play nice with quotation marks and citations, yes, but I’ve realized that some citations have disappeared in pages I worked on in the early weeks. There are probably others I haven’t noticed, and so, I’ve felt compelled to point out in the hypertext that the dissertation is the scholarly statement not the web site, a hedge but one I can’t live without.

First Impressions

  • Clicking through things last night, I realize that I agonized over structural questions as I was putting this thing together but that on the web, structure is hard to make present. For the moment, the posted text feels like a “resource” rather than an “argument” to me. Perhaps this is inevitable given that as I created possibilities for where to go next, I had to create links for those who arrived without info they needed and I couldn’t assume they had. The result is a link structure that feels very flat to me. The “hubs” I’d created, which allowed me to assume that, whatever path readers took to get here, beyond this point they know at least x, y & z, are largely non-operative. I’d like to think that’s a product of the last few days rapid link-building aimed at closing down the loose ends, but it may not be.
  • The hypertext reads online as much smaller than it is. Shockingly so. This is exciting—because it means there is more space than I imagined to write within—but also, I feel stunned: how much do you have to write to create work that feel large?
  • What I have now, feels readable and navigable (not to be confused with interesting or useful!), which makes me very happy. Until last night I had no idea that I would ever get to the point where I had something I could post a link to.

So yes, I’m very very happy. The experiment is done. I now know that Tinderbox HTML export is unbelievably, mind-blowingly easy and effective.

And so I feel free to sit down and write for real.

Wow. I’m going to say that again: I feel free to write. What a great day.

Aug 062015

I take back everything I’ve ever thought or said about Tinderbox export.

It is quite simply magical.

I’m stunned.

More in the coming days…

  •  August 6, 2015
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Aug 012015

I’m working on Faulkner. That text is an argument but also a description of a situation and a history of its context.

Working, I’ve discovered that links can lie.


The jump from one thing to the next can suggest a logical connection between the things without specifying it. And the lacunae can be masked by the page change and clever writing.

Definitely a temptation to avoid.

The flip side of this: any page text will likely be (should be!) the target of multiple links, each suggesting a different logical relationship with that text. So specifying the nature of a connection can be hard.

The goal: honesty without logical constriction.

Jul 222015

Last year was a busy one at school and I had to set the Faulkner hypertext I was working on aside in the Fall. Now with most of the moving boxes unpacked at our new home and summer well under way, I’ve had time to go back to that project.

I’m happy with what I’ve found and have started working again. I’m making good progress, my goals are more reasonable than they were and I have a schedule. I also think I’ve wrapped my head around basic export enough to be confident that I can get something simple but functional out of my project file. (Seeing how effective the very simply formatted Depression Quest was, helped me get over some export fears.)

So I’ve decided that the week of August 10th, whatever I have is going online. If I can stick to my writing schedule and things keep going well, it will be a legitimate first (and maybe last) version of everything. If I can’t, then whatever I do have will benefit from having others look and give feedback. Either way, that week, something’s going up.

  •  July 22, 2015
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Jan 302015

Blogging has been scarce these past weeks. Initially the hiatus was about travel: a vacation followed by holidays with family followed by an unexpected week away. But the time away let me work on other projects and think about what this space is for, and that whole process isn’t done yet.

The news I have:

1. I’m done for now with the Faulkner hypertext project. I had no real appreciation for how radically different hypertext writing was. Neither did I realize how much I need, personally, to let go of an old project that feels done for me. Faulkner needs to be set aside. That said, the questions about linearity that trying to make the project readable brought up for me are very much alive…and very troubling. I hope there will be more to say about that here soon.

2. A series of work projects have taken on a life of their own. None of them are appropriate to discuss here. (An interesting insight: not everything is internet-ready.) This means that life and blog are competing a bit for the time being. This too shall pass, right?

3. More abstractly, this blog feels adolescent. I’ve spent a lot of time these past weeks wondering what this blog is for and what I want it to be. Because I am old the idea of blogging about blogging makes me shiver. Because I am not that old, the questions sting. What started as an experiment has become important, but how? And that “how” is public. /sigh.

4. I have planned for months to blog about the way I’ve been experimenting with wikis in my classroom. In the coming weeks, I may spend some time catching up on what I’ve been doing there. It’s a matter of finding the time to pull out my notes and making posts that I feel ok with.

Finally, I’m sure that anyone who’s read this far will already have read Mark Bernstein’s recent series of posts about Wikipedia and the ongoing GamerGate fiasco. I’ve found them inspiring enough that:

5. This semester I’ve decided to throw GamerGate at the students in a first-year research writing class I’m teaching. It’s the sort of topic that teachers dream of: it touches an intensely personal aspect of students’ lives and challenges them to think about what their casual pleasure mean. But to make sense of the conflicting materials (and their reactions) will require classroom skills they prefer to cordon off in a box labelled simply “school.” Bernstein’s posts set alongside Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, Zoe Quinn’s blog  and supplemented with the resources Bernstein links to in posts like this one and the various articles in news sites and in magazines like The New Yorker, will present my students with a real problem. I can’t wait to talk about it with them and to see what they write. Depending, I may keep tabs on it here.

So that’s where things are and why posting is slow.

Dec 012014

In my admin file, I want to keep track of where information in a note came from: at what meeting, from which organization, on what date, etc. But I also don’t want to have to remember to enter all of this information when I create notes. So when I make a container note for a meeting, I immediately set the on-add actions to enter this information automatically. For this last video in the series, I’m going to explain how I do this.

To Create an On-add Action From Scratch

If you want to set attributes automatically when you create or add notes in a container, you simply:

  1. Open the Inspector (cmd+1)
  2. Select the Action Inspector
  3. Select the Action tab
  4. Begin typing an attribute name, select it from the dropdown to complete it
  5. Assign a value for the attribute using “=” followed by the value in quotation marks
  6. Tab or click away to make sure everything registers
  7. Shift+Tab and then Tab existing notes to apply the action. (It will apply automatically to new notes.)

Note: in the video you will see that I place parentheses around my attribute values. I’m not sure where I picked up that habit, but I learned recently on the Tinderbox forum that it isn’t necessary. The quotation marks are sufficient.

Creating On-add Actions for Additional Notes

Once you have one on-add action written, you are living on easy street. Need to set attributes on another set of notes? Then simply:

  1. Open the Inspector (cmd+1)
  2. Select a nearby note and copy-paste the action to the new note
  3. Edit the bits that should be different
  4. Tab or click away to make sure everything registers
  5. Shift+Tab and then Tab existing notes to apply the action

And that’s it. So there’s nothing to remember. Figure out how to do this once, and when you need to set attributes the next time, open an inspector for an old note, and copy-paste what’s there.

What You’ll See

This video is longer than the others I’ve posted because I shows how to create and apply an on-add action to existing notes as well as how to revise and apply this action to additional notes. I include all of these steps because I think it is worth showing how little time the entire process requires. For a more automated approach to be worthwhile, it would have to be something I could imagine, write and revise more quickly than I can use this less automated approach.


Working Auto-manually

This system isn’t automatic in the sense that I type something once and forget about it and everything I want happens magically. It’s low-level automation that ensures consistency without being overly complex or abstract. It requires some work on my part, but I find that this work keeps me in touch with my materials. Neither do I have to know any complicated, conditional syntax or how to fetch information from other notes. I just enter the values I want to set directly.

Because the actions are so simple to manage, I also don’t feel much pressure to predict all of the attributes I will eventually want to set. In my admin file for example, I started out setting only two attributes. I added to these slowly over time, and my basic meeting containers now set five. Each time I realized I wanted to set a new attribute, I simply added it to my list, did some copy-pasting and some shift+tab/tabbing, and in fifteen twenty minutes everything was up to date.

Adding to Attribute Values

Finally, as I move notes around, the on-add actions I show here can create problems. If I’m not careful for example, a new container’s on-add action will replace the attributes set by the note’s previous container. I asked how to deal with this on the Tinderbox forum, and it turns out the solution is pretty straightforward.

If I type:


this action sets the attribute value to “A,” replacing any existing value.

But if I the attribute is a set, and I type:


this action adds “A” to the existing value of $CollegeOrganization without deleting any previous value. And because the attribute is a set, I can’t get duplicate values. So everything stays tidy.

  •  December 1, 2014
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Nov 102014

Right off the bat I should say that I’m still learning how to use attributes. Outlines, map views, links, these I understand, and I see how they help me. Attributes feel very different to me, and I’m a bit intimidated by them. 1 As a result, I think I tend to use them more casually than many people who use Tinderbox do.

Two Ways of Using Attributes

For now, I mostly use attributes in two ways: as labels indicating stable information that I will use to identify notes visually; and as “tags” to temporarily keep track of time-sensitive information through an agent. The first use is straightforward. If I see “Organization A” in the key attributes of a note, I know the source of the information I’m looking at. The second is a bit more complicated.

Imagine a situation in which I’ve requested some information from a group, course preferences perhaps. To keep track of who has submitted the information and who has not, I would create an attribute called “CoursePreferences,” set it to boolian so I have a checkbox to work with, and then add the attribute to my key attributes. I would then create two simple agents. One would search for boxes that are checked (i.e. a value of “true”); the other, for those that are not (i.e. “false”). 2 As people submit their material, I would be able to check them off easily and my agents would move their notes automatically from my “checked” to “unchecked” lists. When my “unchecked” agent is empty, I’m done and delete both the attribute and the agents.

For this second situation to be worthwhile, I need to be able to create and delete a user attribute (and to set it as a key attribute) quickly. I give instructions for doing all three tasks below. These are followed by a video that shows what things look like in practice.

Creating an Attribute

To create a new attribute:

  1. Open the Inspector (cmd+1)
  2. Select the Document Inspector
  3. Select “New User Attribute” from the dropdown menu (gear icon)
  4. Enter the name of the new attribute.
  5. Select the kind of value the attribute will contain
  6. Tab or click away to make sure everything registers.

Note: in the video you will see that when I type “Organization” the text goes red. This indicates that the attribute name is already in use or doesn’t conform to the naming rules. Adjust the text to something that shows black, and you are good to go.

Deleting an Attribute

Deleting an attribute is easy.

  1. Open the Inspector (cmd+1)
  2. Select the Document Inspector
  3. Select the attribute to be deleted from the dropdown menu. (Be careful!)
  4. Select “Delete user attribute” from the gear menu.

…and it’s gone. So again, be careful!

Setting (and Resetting) a Key Attribute

Tinderbox 6 has made managing key attributes ridiculously easy. To show an attribute at the top of the text window for a note, simply click the “+” button next to the note title. A pop-up shows all of the current key attributes of the note. Click somewhere in the list, begin typing the name of the attribute you want to add, select it from the menu that pops us, and you’re done.

Remember: If you change the key attributes for a prototype then all of the notes that it controls will inherit the change. That’s a good thing. If the prototype is selected while you create the attribute, you can tick the checkbox to add the new attribute to your key attributes automatically.

If ever you see that a note does not inherit new key attributes from it’s prototype and you would like it to, then you simply click the “+” button and then the “reset” button on the pop-up. This should fix the problem.


Next up: simple on-add actions.

(The next video will be the last in this series. Because I’m out of ideas for the moment. If anyone uses these and has suggestions of things they’d like to see, feel free to drop me an email or send me a tweet. I’ll see what I can do.)

  •  November 10, 2014
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Nov 072014

Outlines and maps are where I do most of my work in Tinderbox, but they function very differently from each other. Effective outlines use a hierarchy of container notes to structure information. Maps organize the notes in a single container using spatial relations drawn onto a flat surface.

Having both tools available to work with the same notes is powerful. Yet, in my early project files, I also found it was easy to wind up in a situation where work I put into organizing my outline limited what kind of work I could do with my maps. (cf. “Boxes within Boxes“)


But there’s a way to avoid this potential problem. Using prototypes and the inspector to adjust typography, you can easily create (or adjust) headings and subheadings that can be used to transform a “deep” outline into a “shallow” structured list that doesn’t limit the scope of the corresponding map view.

In the video below, I use the “Organization Prototype” I created in the last post and  the “Events” prototype that is built into Tinderbox 1 to create headings in an outline. To do this:

  1. Select a prototype.
  2. Open the inspector (menu or cmd+1).
  3. Switch to the text inspector tab.
  4. Adjust the prototype’s text attributes to create a heading. (The changes are visible as they are made and affect every note controlled by the prototype you are adjusting.)
  5. Select a second prototype and adjust it’s settings to create a subheading.


Once your headings are created, you can use shift+Tab to “flatten” segments of your outline’s structure without eliminating its organization. 2

Next Post: Creating and Deleting Attributes

  •  November 7, 2014
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Nov 062014

Prototypes are easy to make and manage. So much so that in my early projects I tried to use them for everything. That didn’t work out so well. These days I have fewer prototypes, but those that remain are one of my main tools for organizing material in my projects.

Making a prototype is as basic as basic can be. You simply:

  1. Create a note (or select one 1).
  2. Open the Inspector with the menu or by pressing cmd-1.
  3. Go to the “Properties Inspector” tab.
  4. With the note selected, check “prototype.”

In the video below, I show the process. Near the end, I also point out that the order in which prototypes are displayed in the contextual menu is controlled by the placement of prototypes in your project outline. In other words, you can very easily arrange the contextual menu to suit your needs.



Next post: using prototypes to format shallow outlines.

  •  November 6, 2014
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