Tinderbox as Visual Tool

I was initially attracted to Tinderbox in v.5 for the way it allowed notes and metadata to be treated as objects in a variety of graphical/visual views.

The software’s commitment to the visual was, on the one hand, accessible and appealing. There were maps, charts and something called treemaps. More significantly, notes were “deep” (they contained text, text links, and all the attributes and values I could imagine), but I could interact with them as flat objects arranged on a plane. All of this felt intuitive, accessible and revolutionary. I’d never used my computer this way, and it felt liberating enough that once, in a moment of euphoria, I compared it to swimming like a dolphin.

On the other hand, this commitment to the visual often proved to be intellectually challenging. When I was staring at an outline of notes, each with its text and long list of key attributes and values, I could ignore my confusion about what I was doing or working on because at least, it seemed, I was working. That confusion was harder to ignore in a map that made glaringly obvious just how much of a jumble all my thoughts were in. In this way, the visual continually brought me up short and forced me to take account of where my thinking stood.

But if Tinderbox offered me a graphic presentation of my mental jumble, the app also made it possible for me to create order in the chaos by arranging my thought–objects sensibly, meaningfully, and then capturing the insights that emerged visibly in badges, colors, shapes, links, adornments, and more. As strange as it sounds, this commitment to visual tools and graphical/spatial sense-making felt polemical, something I’d never imagined software could be. There was a point-of-view embodied in the Views, and I felt pushed by it to find clarity and empowered as I made the attempt.


So fast forward from my initial impressions of Tinderbox to last Summer and Fall. I was course planning in Tinderbox and made a series of videos about how I was going about it. I was also trying to make headway with my research for a writing project, but I was struggling to get anything done, even if it took me awhile to realize it. When I did, I assumed it was mostly because of the move to online teaching and the inevitable difficulties of finding your feet in a still new project. Also, there was COVID. Eventually though I began to suspect that the trouble arose because I was trying to do my work in a tool I’d lost sight of how to use. I was having fun making magical little machines that did all kinds of idiosyncratic things, but in many ways they amounted to a collection of distracting TBX toys.

How could this have happened?

Strange as it may sound, I think the problem arose in part from being too deeply immersed in the forums. The forums are incredibly friendly and supportive, and they’re a space on the internet that I value. But as I spent more and more time there, I slowly internalized a variety of implicit (imagined?) notions that together built up into a revised conception of how to use Tinderbox that was emphatically textual and profoundly non-visual. Here are a few of those implicit notions:

  • The outline is the base view and is rounded out by the attribute browser.
  • The map view is a limited and probably introductory view.
  • The other views are experiments or curiosities of limited use.
  • Use and manipulation of information generally happens (and in advanced work probably will happen) through action code or AppleScript.
  • Information should be organized and regularized in anticipation of this coded/scripted manipulation. (Also probably for export. Because, maybe.)
  • TBX is a tool for producing and interacting with a linear text file in a non-linear way. (This is a factual statement that carried outsized metaphorical weight for me.)

I’m not sure whether most forum participants would agree or disagree with these statements, and it doesn’t much matter one way or the other: Tinderbox is a varied and complex tool that invites each person to figure out how best to use it for what they want to do. What does matter is that these and other text-centered notions had begun to operate as the fixed coordinates I navigated by, and this wasn’t working for me at all.

The concreteness that came from being able to treat information and ideas as objects (without flattening them out to mere objects) had evaporated. Everything in my files had become abstract and indistinct, and I felt like I was spending all my time building or servicing vague structures rather than thinking about my courses or my research.

I was lost.


So I pulled back from the forums last Fall and set aside all the elaborately beautiful little machine–files I’d built up and was dazzled by. I wanted distance from what had become a dead-end and to find again the messy provocation and the polemic that had first attracted me to the app: the idea that arranging complex textual data graphically in space could both clarify thought and be made an integral component of thinking and writing.

To give myself a chance to see things with fresh eyes, I decided to tackle a different aspect of my writing project, one that involved the difficult problem of how to annotate film stills directly but in a way that would allow me to use the annotations as notes for a developing, multi-film commentary.

So far, this is going well. I love how the annotations look, and I’m rediscovering brilliantly useful visual tools I haven’t touched in a year or more. And when I want to get a look at how things are shaping up, I can dive (like a dolphin) into the notes’ texts for a bit before coming up for visual air. Importantly, I’ve avoided building machines. Instead, I create simple prototypes and simple agents only when some task has become a pain and I see that using them can make it easier. This feels a lot like painting with only red, blue, yellow and white, an enabling restriction. It also feels like a rediscovery of Tinderbox’s visual heart.

And then finally Spring

Winter has always been my favorite season. The silence, the stillness, the strange brightness of a night full of snow and stars, all these things have always made winter feel like a secret, and I’ve never understood those who dreaded its arrival.

Until this year. This year, winter was a smothering gloom I struggled and struggled to get through. As happy to be at home and in my head as I always am, months nine through twelve of the pandemic wore me down to the nub and made the world dark.

But now, with temperatures jumping high enough, fast enough to make the sap in the maples stop flowing as soon as it’s begun (very much a bad thing to be sure), I’m happy to drink in the light—and to see others doing the same—when I go out to walk by the road in the shallow mud left behind by the receding snow.

Also the geese are back, and they feel as much like a miracle as ever.

Biden’s Term Has Already Begun

Republicans are contesting the election, and they mean it, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t already know the outcome of their efforts. They aren’t stupid.

They are trolling in order to draw blood and to delegitimize. Some people will take it seriously and become enraged against Biden; others will take it seriously and lose their shit over how awful the Republicans are and be exhausted by it.

It’s a political strategy that we’ve been calling Trumpism, pretending against the facts that it was about a single person. It wasn’t, and this is a seamless continuation of the bile and bad faith we’ve been living with for four years. It’s also the first taste of what we’ll see if the Democrats don’t take the Senate in Georgia’s January elections.

“Obama’s Third Term” will be like his second if McConnell has anything to say about it.

Writing and Exporting Feedback

On the TBX Forum, I was asked a question about the rubric I built a few years ago. I don’t use it anymore because I built it to grade in a style I don’t like or believe in. (Which was dumb on my part.) But I suggested I might make a video showing what I’m planning on using this coming term.

This seemed possible because I was thinking through how to cope with the fact that a lot of the brief in-person feedback I give throughout a term will, this term, necessarily happen online and in writing. What I imagined doing was sitting down to put my new system together and just recording what I did as I worked. When I was done, I expected I’d be able to cut out the lulls and moments of despair and post what was left.

The result I arrived at are the two new videos I’m posting today. Together they record me beginning with a fresh starter file and from there creating a form for offering quick feedback on small assignments that exports as a custom text layout. My total work time was about an hour and a half, but I’ve managed to cut that down to two twenty minute videos.

These will be the last videos for awhile: Day One looms, and the pressure is on.

Tinderbox Videos

It’s the time of year where I’m preparing courses for the Fall, and this year, I decided that I would make some videos demonstrating some of how I use Tinderbox to do that work. Two of these are now live. I’m hoping to make and post a few others in the coming days and weeks.

These videos are something I’ve imagined doing in a vague way for awhile and so they have been a long time coming. But in another sense, these videos are very much a product of the pandemic.

Classes are online for the Fall, and this has both increased the complexity of my preparations and forced me to do much more of them before classes begin. There seems to be so much to do and so little time to do it that it feels overwhelming. Making these videos offered me a chance to step back from that work and reflect on how I was getting started.

One important point: these videos are not instructional “how to” clips. Instead, they are a couple of brief looks at a few of the ways I go about my business.


A Few Garden Thoughts, July

  • There is too much to do. So do what you see how to do. As you work, you’ll see how to do other things.
  • You’re working with roots, not leaves. The leaves are what’s stressful, they’re what you see, but they aren’t the real matter: push them aside and follow the stem, and where it touches the ground, feel around, grab the other stems rising up from the same point and pull, gently, until they come free roots and all. 
  • There is no wasted effort. If you are getting in the car to go run errands, but see a young weed without deep roots right there in arms reach and you have the few seconds it takes, reach down and pull it out. Things are now better than they were.
  • There’s a lot of stuff “to do” but mostly you just need to let things be. Water. Sun. Composted manure. Some basic maintenance to keep the bad actors away. That and time is all the garden needs. So help out and then let it be.
  • The Beav likes potatoes. I tried three sorts. But I didn’t hill them in time and they laid down. This doesn’t seem to bother them. I haven’t weeded enough and the grass is thick between the plants. This also doesn’t seem to bother them. Potato bugs have descended and I’ve tried to pull them off, have caught a lot of them in the first wave as they were mating, but I think I’ve lost this battle. They are going to be thick on the plants for the rest of summer whatever I do. (Because I won’t do chemical pesticide.) But this is okay. I’ve now seen how potatoes work and they are working fine this year despite the grass and bugs — they are tall and densely colored. When I plant next year’s potatoes next year, because I’ll plant them again, I’ll know better what to watch out for. So this year has been more than worthwhile.

A Home at the End of the World

Book I

Two young boys grow up together in Cleveland as best friends. One is dealing with the trauma of family members’ deaths. The other with an awakening gay sexuality. They smoke pot & drop acid (it’s the 70s) and have sweet, young sex.

Book II

The boys, now young men, reunite in New York after spending the early years of their adulthood apart. One has gone to school, come out, and become a journalist. He lives with his new best friend. The other has apprenticed as a baker, opened a restaurant that failed, and has come to New York to start over. They live exciting lives until the baker and the roommate began to have sex. The gay man flees.

Book III

The gay man’s father dies and the three go to the funeral. Back in New York they decide to form a family and buy a house in the country. They raise their child as three parents. Eventually they take in the gay man’s former lover who is dying of AIDS. The roommate leaves with their child, disappears. The two friends stay at the home together caring for the dying man. The book ends with the three of them standing naked in the freezing water of a lake under the beautiful sky.

I loved this book.

Butler: Themes Post-Exogenesis

Reading the Exogenesis series (DawnAdulthood RitesImago) I made a non-exhaustive list of themes running through Octavia Butler’s novels.


  • Empathy, feeling what others feel, suffering through what you do to them in your own body.
  • Valorization of sexual pleasure, bisexuality, polygamy.
  • Privileging group, social unit over the individual without subsuming individuality or individual freedom; there’s no binary.
  • The ongoing threat of slavery, the ongoing threat of racism, especially the dangers presented by white people and white men, dangers that are entrenched enough to appear innate, biological.
  • The evolutionary threat (and dead end) posed by patriarchal masculinity, a dead-end that is named explicitly in the narration and played out explicitly in the narrative.
  • Inquisitive, intelligent, and empathetic (but always rational) women are the protagonists after the first Seed to Harvest novel.


When I made this list, I’d read (but not necessarily logged) the Exogenesis series, Fledgling, and the Seed to Harvest series.

But now at this point, I’ve read everything Butler’s published except a bit of the short fiction. I’m not sure though what to write about what I’ve read.

Butler’s fiction is alarmingly topical and the clarity of her prose is simply overwhelming: it’s difficult to imagine how someone writes her sentences and then uses them to muster the narrative energy she brings to bear novel after novel. What I see clearly is that she makes structural choices vis-à-vis narration and point-of-view that enable a fluency and a diction that are spare and beautiful.

My take-away is that Butler is an extraordinarily talented and smart novelist.

Nus Masculins

A 1954 film by François Reichenbach restored and presented by the Cinémathèque française that I found through a blog post by José Arroyo. I can’t find a way to make the embed video link from the original site work, so you can watch it hosted by the Cinématheque here.

What Opening Looks Like

I’ve realized too late that it would have been cool to keep the Government’s various info sheets as they were released as a reminder of how restrictions changed over time for when the slow stages have congealed into a simpler memory of the “the Troubles.” Alas, I didn’t think of it in time.

In the spirit of “better late than never,” here’s what a late-stage guidelines info sheet looks like.

The Times of Crisis

The troubles move at their own times. There are waves of infection. There are also waves of reaction. They don’t however move together the way I’d expected. The virus continues its steady march but what we feel is mostly about what we’ve been feeling. The facts seem to have little to do with it.

Here things are opening up bit-by-slow-bit and seem to be under control. Yet my own reactions, while rooted here in Quebec, are also tied up in my worries about the situation in Florida and Georgia which (as I feared) is spiraling out of control.

Emotionally, this is a bit like standing with one foot on a dock and the other on a loose boat. It’s not the bit of stable ground that matters.