Lisa Firke | Wild Keys :: Notes from the Field


Tinderbox Delivery

I recently had occasion to do some research on commission and chose to create and deliver this research in the form of a Tinderbox document.

This had several advantages over other document formats I might have used, the primary one being that I was able to put it together and deliver it very quickly. At the same time, it was a simple matter to implement a few simple flourishes to make the document more useful to its recipient.

To users of Tinderbox these "flourishes" can almost be taken for granted; that is how integral they are to the program.

But I'm being vague. Here's an example: This research file contained a lot of images, and I happened to know ahead of time that the recipient wanted, among other things, to be able to browse through a lot of images at one time. It was a simple matter to create a boolean attribute that could be checked off if a Tinderbox 'note' contained an image, and an equally simple matter to create an agent that would collect all the notes where this attribute = true. Voila. In a file of roughly 180 notes (you might visualize these as a pile of scribbly 3 x 5 cards) and about 20,000 words, a subdirectory instantly appeared with quick access to every image in the file. Handy and hopefully value-added for the user.

Another Tinderbox feature that was important in this case was the fact that I didn't have to determine the structure--the outline--before I'd done the research. I could begin to gather information willy nilly and with confidence that I could order and organize it all later, with a minimum of fuss. In this case I attempted to illustrate the trajectory of my brainstorming on the topic while at the same time compartmentalizing the different tangents. If some of these prove to be blind alleys, the document structure permits them to be blissfully backburned until such time as they might prove useful.

Disclaimer: it is always possible that when we produce a thing that seems useful to us, it fails to seem so to others. Mileage varies. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure making this little sidetrip.


I spent a few hours on Sunday (the day after Tinderbox Chicago), wresting my posts from TypePad and into Tinderbox. I had been leery of this process, but found that XML is a godlike form for moving stuff from one place to another. It was a simple matter to export all of my old posts in TypePad to my desktop, drag this into Tinderbox, where it became a megaNote. I thought I'd have to add some kind of delimiter to separate this giant note into separate posts, but it turns out there was already a text string I could use in the TypePad output. Exploded megaNote.

Still a bit of hand-editing to do, but I didn't mind this as it was a chance to review what writings I had accumulated in the past several years. I had thought, going in, that my output had been very slight, and by typical blogger standards it probably is, but, really, there are some interesting bits that I'm glad to be able to revisit.

One issue I encountered was figuring out how to date these posts. I have a container for drafts that assigns today's date onAdd, and I wanted to be able to preserve the original posting dates.
These were tagged in the file, so it was a matter of making a new attribute for them (TrueDate defined as a text string) and cutting and pasting. (There's probably a macro I could have created that would have searched for the date and inserted the value in the right field, but I didn't feel like messing with this.)

A little bit of editing in the Name and Topic fields and I have all my old posts in nearly postable form. I'll need to make another pass to sort out image paths, but once that's done and I've tweaked the design, Wild Keys can go live again and the TypePad account can go dormant. It was instructive to have used it the service, but I don't need it now.

Hipster PDA and other hi-tek stuff

Whilst tidying up some of my favorites/bookmarks, I re-found this one:

"Introducing the Hipster PDA"...

A celebration of the humble index card from awesome-as-ever 43 Folders.

Perhaps one of the most cost-effective and sensible ways of recording data.

My two other favorite methods include Eastgate's Tinderbox and the charming Moleskine line of notebooks, my new crush among these being the reporter's notebook.

Tinderbox on a white charger

I've been working on a massive client site redesign since late summer and the site has of necessity been continually updated in its old form during the time I've been fussing with the new one (not yet online, but soon, soon, we hope).

Said client has been emailing me notes about her changes as she goes along, and where practical I've updated my local copies and where it didn't make sense to do that I've put the email in a to-do-later folder.

Now I'm ready to deal with those to-do-laters and found that Tinderbox could help me retain some measure of sanity in the process.

Here's how:

1) I dragged all the client's emails into a new tinderbox file. At first I thought I had to highlight and drag just the text, but it turns out that you can drag an email from the mailbox list and you get the email's subject as the title of the note along with the full contents. Sweet.

2) Even a cursory glance at these notes tells me that the client has made multiple changes to some of the same pages. I don't want to do these piecemeal, rather I want to gather all the notes that reference a specific page together and make all the changes at once--or even recapture the entire page and reconvert it to the new site template, if that seems the best course. What I need is an agent. Actually, lots of agent. Agents told to search for notes with text or names containing "/wild/tinderbox/specificnamegoeshere.htm".

This is working beautifully--I haven't been doing this for very long and I already can tell which pages have amassed the most changes. I have a *smart* master checklist that didn't take very long to create.

This is not advanced Tinderboxing by any means, and that's the point of blogging this. I didn't set out to devise a fancy Tbox thingy. I didn't have a plan or a design. I just had a need, thought Tinderbox might be useful, and plunged in. It was, as I expected, rather easy to set up and is working better than the clunky (and now out-of-date) master checklist I had started to amass in TextEdit a few weeks back.

At some point, I'll want an agent to tell me if I've connected with all the change emails in the file. An agent to look for notes that have been gathered by agents, or those that haven't. I'm not sure how I'll do this; I don't know what to tell the agent to look for, exactly. But I suspect I'll figure it out. Something like stamping all the emails with a color and having the agents change the color when they gather them. Then I could search for notes whose color had kept the default. Something like that....

Thanks, Mark.

I'm Tinderboxin'

(to the tune of "Barefootin'")

Mark Bernstein, Tinderbox architect

As Mark writes, it was exhausting and exhilarating and exhausting. I have been remarkably stupid all day, which I hope is due to fatigue and not my reset-to-default state.

I got to meet a number of people I've run into online: Mark, of course, and Elin, but also Ken Tompkins, who like me enjoys being married and who has gorgeous medieval stuff at his site, and Marc-Antoine, who needs a more expressive web site because his all-text one doesn't do his kinetic gamin presence full justice, and Jeffrey, of the elegant Tinctoris, who helped confirm that a bit of worldbuilding for my novel-in-progress The Doe's Heart—(a "mandolyre")—might well be a plausible and useful instrument.

As promised in the virtual brochure, the first day we met in the Armenian Library and Museum, which was a marvelous setting and was stuffed full of interesting exhibits I didn't get a proper look at.

Elin Sjursen at Tinderbox Weekend

Elin got things off to a start by giving us what was nominally a tutorial in Tinderbox's basic workings, but also was an engaging example of good teaching (capture your audience and make them care) and a delightful excursion into hyperlinked narrative. (Elin, not only did you demonstrate the linky goodness of Tinderbox, you captured your audience. If good wishes have power, you'll never have a dateless Thursday night again.)

Rosemary Simpson and Ken Tompkins

The whole weekend was like this, really. The best moments were those sudden glimpses into other people's Tinderboxen. I am grateful to Rosemary Simpson of Brown for unseating a very fixed prejudice against MS Word, showing me that the art tools (silly bloated add-ons) can be used to make witty cloud callout adornments for Tinderbox maps. The complexity and size of her research file was boggling and yet extremely graceful. The latent indexer/archivist in me wants to sit at her feet and learn from an expert.

Since we were sharing, I demonstrated my rudimentary mastery of getting agents to collect stuff related to my paper filing system (pretty much fullfilling my prophesy of revealing my skill level to be on a par with toast) and received all sorts of clever suggestions for expanding this particular file's usefulness. People got a good chuckle at my names for things: the file cabinets "chaos" and "entropy," frex.

Melissa "Penny" Chase shared a conceptual map of links to all things Egyptian, which, when zoomed, gave somewhat the effect of exploring an excavated tomb and finding wonderful little side-rooms and galleries.

I don't even know how to describe David Kolb's uberfile. In map view, the top level looks like a Calder mobile that has been self-replicating when the curator's back is turned.

I was sorry to leave Marc-Antoine's presentation of how he's hacked Tinderbox before the end—and miss, too, the closure of the conference. (I had a sudden strong allergic reaction to something—very odd—perhaps there was cilantro in my salad?—and wanted to be sure it didn't blow up into something that would prevent me from driving home. As it was, the drive was a white-knuckled affair with the storm sitting right ON the highway most of the way. It looked exactly like the tornado weather I used to see when I lived in the midwest, and there actually was a tornado watch out for Connecticut not long after I got home.)

Filing Filibuster

Nothing like getting blogged by Mark Bernstein for driving traffic to my site... Y'all come back now!

A footnote (ha!) on my filing project. I mentioned that my physical space imposes limits and requirements on where and in what type of product I file a paper document. A document itself has its own specs for where (how easily accessible) and in what (hanging files, accordian files, funky non-standard container). These in turn influenced how I set up the Tinderbox index to these files: I wanted to know where they were in the room and in what type of file thingie I had stashed each one. This led me to create agents that gathered notes for each file based on a user-defined location attribute (filePlace) and also to give myself a few other user-defined attributes like "relationship" (is this a file for a client or for my stuff?), and "genre".

As I get further into this project, what I'm finding is that the Tinderbox file is showing me whether I'm really making appropriate use of the different file spaces that I have. I can see a primo-accessible space getting filled up with what are really archival materials and elect to change things around. It's really quite dynamic, this interaction between the physical sorting and arranging and the digital cataloguing and analyzing.

A note to any clients who may be reading: I am not just cleaning my office. Think of this process as enabling me to serve you better. Besides, I'm dividing my time between filing and working on your stuff. Really.

Mission Tinderbox

I will be attending the Tinderbox Weekend in Boston in a little more than a week, so I've been playing with the program with renewed energy and a somewhat desperate desire not to appear dumb as toast in front of the experts.

Tinderbox is brilliant for collecting and tracking information, so I'm seeing if I can use it to make a digital key to my paper filing system.

Ha! "What paper filing system?" (Sez anyone who's had a gander at the current state of my home office.) Numerous household moves, the chaos and entropy of the early childhood years, and my own reluctance to commit to any fixed system have left me with a bewildering and bulky collection of paper files.

This is not just an exercise in what to purge and what to keep. It's how to keep so I can retrieve, because as any organizing guru will tell you, if you can't find it, you don't really have it.

There's both a physical and a mental challenge in this. The space I'm using for my office is a definite factor. I love this room, a small nine-foot by nine-foot enclosed back porch in an 80-year-old house. Time out of mind, someone thought it ought to be a breakfast room, and fitted it up with some white cupboards and a small corner hutch. To our family, this purpose seems silly and redundant, since the "breakfast" room is right next to the "dining" room, which is just fine for breakfast. No, the room I've chosen holds the door to the back yard, a door my two dogs must go in and out of approximately 628 times a day, making this room the obvious location for a home office. That and the convenient network/phone connection and the fact that it possesses one of the very few grounded outlets in the whole house.

However, this room has only one wall--the rest of the space is doorways and windows or built-in cupboards. The one wall accommodates a desk but not a traditional file cabinet. So a bit of improvising is called for, and some creative ways of thinking about "what is a file?"

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard describes keeping her "files"--an extensive collection of 3x5 card notes--in a capacious trunk. An organizing guru would call this a creative use of containers.

Our old tax records are in a trunk in another room. In here, I have to figure out how to make my "files" fit on windowsills, under the desk, on a bookshelf, and in a very shallow cupboard. There's a lot of storage space in this room, when you think about it, just none of it is file-shaped.

Pottery Barn came to the rescue on the windowsills. Two cubby units, meant to be used singly to span a desktop, exactly fill my windowsill and provide cubbies, drawers and nooks, as well as a long horizontal surface ideal for sorting and collating. I now have a place for my most active files--and the stapler.

The bookshelf behind my chair, which is positioned in front of a curtain that conceals one half of the French doors to outside (a way to cheat a just little more "wall" out of this room), tells me that it could accommodate accordian files, if they are colorful. Well, accordian files are a good tool for anyone with any sort of attentional challenge. One accordian file equals one project and everything related to that project--correspondence, drafts, contracts, billing--can live there. When it's no longer an active file, the whole thing can move to storage and make room for another accordian.

This is good for the dozen or so active client projects I have going at the moment. But what about the three dozen files for clients who are not currently active, but I might want to check on? What about the bulky drafts of the four novels I have in progress? What about the research for those novels?

Somewhere along the way, I'd acquired two sturdy canvas-and-leather file boxes with fitted covers. There's room for them under the desk, but once they're loaded, they don't move easily. I don't like crawling under the desk to reach them. The organizing gurus have a good thought on this. Castors. Putting them on wheels actually does make these two boxes much more functional.

The two boxes take care of the novel drafts and research files, which are too bulky for accordian files. But I still have at least two traditional file drawers full of files I need to have nearby and logically arranged.

The skinny cupboard, too shallow even for dishes, turns out to be the answer. Two humble wire-mesh desktop files will fit on each shelf of the lower half of this cupboard. Four total provide the same space as two conventional file drawers. And, with this discovery, I have become an organizational guru.

I will spare you the agonizing decisions that winnowed a much larger cache of files down to what's contained in these four areas: the windowsill cubbies, the underdesk boxes, the on-shelf accordian files and the in-cupboard wire-mesh files. (This will help me conceal the bare fact that this process is ongoing and far from complete. Hey, at least I have a plan.)

But I started this posting with thoughts about Tinderbox. If I had all my files in one gigantic credenza, I don't think I would want or even think to make a key or an index to them. But with my files stashed in these different areas, I probably need some sort of breadcrumb trail to help me remember what I've stuck where. And, even if I don't, I need practice with Tinderbox.

So I make a digital file that's a key to my paper files. I have four locations, so I make containers that are also agents that can search notes for the filePlace attribute. I also want to be able to track by projectName (as opposed to file name), by relationship (client, writing buddy, my stuff), and by genre. More agents.


view of Tinderbox file

The notes on the files themselves are sparse. I mostly want to know if I already have started a file for a person or a category, and where I originally thought such a file ought to live. But the notes give me a place to record that the 3X5 card micro-outline of the children's novel I just mailed to a contest is not stored with the rest of the file in the box under the desk, it's in one of the windowsill cubbies, because I plan to use it as an example with one of my clients who wants help with outlines.

I don't know if any of this is interesting to anyone else. I find shows like Mission Organization very soothing--through the magic of television, in just half an hour, horrific messes and clutter become serene orderly spaces.

With Tinderbox, I even have a map of my office that I can show you. This is may be uber-geekdom, but I don't care. I'm beginning to know where my files are.

map of file locations in my office

Blogging the Line

...between Blood and Bernstein....

A College Writing Assignment: Read Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook, plus Mark Bernstein's review of Blood's book and, (this is my own addition), his article "Writing the Living Web".

If I'm not mistaken, among the various issues that might boil up in response to reading these two side by side, you will also find the following paradoxes of web writing, (which are, as it turns out, the paradoxes of all writing):

Say your piece. Link to what others have to say.

To thine own self be true. Only connect.

"Stacey A.", in her first-year teaching log for the college writing course, says:

I can't help but yet again feel pinned between Bernstein and Blood .... Blood says to write for yourself. Bernstein more or less says I need to be interesting, constructing rhetorical and social situations by creating effective links.

— entry for 5/15/03,

(quoted 5/16/03 by Bernstein)


Be yourself. Be interesting. Does some such dynamic pairing define a borderline between Bernstein and Blood, both influential personalities when it comes to the topic of web writing? Is this the uncomfortable rock and hard place where a fledgling web writer could get pinned?

Maybe. Except I don't see Scylla and Charybdis. To write at all you have to believe that you are interesting. Martha Graham puts it even more emphatically:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

I believe this. And yet, to write at all well, a writer also needs to follow the lead of John Gardner, who says, "[the writing] is about other people." It would be a poor world, artistically, culturally, politically, if artists didn't enter imaginatively into the experience of another.

Individual. Community.

What seems important is to be mindful of where the balance point might be between creation's rival hungers for privacy and for audience. Creation plainly craves both. Privacy argues against exposure, but hiding blunts authenticity. Audiences claim to crave authenticity, but everyone knows audiences are fickle.

Still, the audience likes a good story. The audience likes context.

Include the audience. But don't lose yourself.

The first paragraph of Bernstein's review of Blood's manual gives the lay of the land of blogs:

Tragedy tells us that our weblogs are the playthings of the Gods, subject to the whims of fate and fortune. Comedy promises that our weblogs can succeed through hard work, struggle, and good fortune. Melodrama warns us that there are bad people and evil forces in the world, and that only through courage and determination can our weblogs overcome their malignity. And Romance assures us that, though weblogs fail everywhere, our weblog will prosper because we, ourselves, are wonderful.

Mark Bernstein, in HypertextNow.


I love this. If you substitute something a little broader — 'endeavor' or 'work' — the passage opens out to encompass the entire existential dilemma of the artist. The four "genres" of the blog are not discrete states of being, they form a continuum of the artist's state of mind, by turns fatalistic, hopeful, fearful and self-involved. The balance point is always shifting, and with it, the artist's ability to look inward or outward.