Reporter's Notebook

Chronicles of Interesting Software
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Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the match between digital technology and human thought.
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Tinderbox Update, Plus The Brain

It's been a while since the latest update on this front, so here is a quick mention of developments in two programs I've followed over the years.

1) "Getting Started With Tinderbox." For the past few years, my go-to workhorse program for data organizing/software-for-thinking has been the Mac-only program Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. (My program for writing, as I can't mention often enough, is the absolutely unparalleled Scrivener, from Literature and Latte software in Cornwall, England.) I still love the idea-organizing program Zoot, which I first wrote about in this magazine back in the mid-1990s. But Zoot is Windows-only, and since I made the switch to the Mac world six years ago, fleeing the nightmare that was Windows Vista, I've mainly had to admire Zoot from afar.

In an age of ubiquitous free apps, Tinderbox can seem pricey. It's $249 for initial purchase and updates for a year, and then $98 a year for ongoing updated releases. The new releases are frequent and valuable (as are those that Zoot's creator, Tom Davis, keeps issuing for his program). But if you don't care about them you can use the original program as long as you want. Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, has justified his business approach as part of a new wave of "artisanal software" or Neo-Victorian computing. You pay more for craft beer than for the cheapest swill; you may choose to pay more for organic food than the very cheapest source of calories. So too with certain kinds of software.

The way I think about it is this: $98 a year is much less than I'd pay for one standard day of business travel, and this program's value to me through every day of the year is greater than what I gain on the standard day on the road. Judge for yourself, but I've found the investment very much worthwhile.

The real obstacle to wider adoption of Tinderbox has been the difficulty in getting started with the program. If someone hands you a sledgehammer, you have an idea of what you might do with it. But the first time you're handed a pencil, you have no idea of the million possibilities it opens up. To help potential users over this hurdler, Bernstein has created a carefully annotated step-by-step guide, available as a PDF for download here. Worth checking out.

2) Jerry Michalski's Brain. For years I've also loved the innovative, multi-platform program TheBrain, from TheBrain software in Los Angeles. I wrote about it in the New York Times 10 years ago, and then in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2012. It has various free or very low-cost versions; the full-strength desktop edition, for Mac or Windows, starts at $219.  

The very most ambitious and creative user of TheBrain has long been the tech-world figure Jerry Michalski. He has been chronicling his life and thoughts via this software for 18 years now and has posted his results on the web. Now he's created an iOS app, called JerrysBrain. He sends some notes about what he's doing:

My Brain has been openly available on the Web for many years and will remain so, at Now a Jerry's Brain app is available for iOS and costs a buck. Here's the direct link to it in the app store.

It's easy for me to create permalinks to specific thoughts in my online Brain, though not to the iOS app. Here are a few useful and interesting direct links:

I started this Brain in December 1997. It has over 257K thoughts, all put in by hand. I just ran the numbers and it's a span of 6300 days, or 40 thoughts a day.

The top insight from 17+ years of using TheBrain is that we're an amnesic society. We have little context or memory available. A huge causal force is the business model of the media businesses, which historically needed us to watch the ads scattered in the content, so it kept the content from us.

For further exploration, here's a screenshot from Jerry's Brain and then three posts and screencasts from Jerry Michalski on how and why he works this way:

  • Early post with 8-min screencast introduction to my Brain, the best intro
  • Post for anyone wanting to dive deeper, after a 30-min talk I gave at the Personal Digital Archiving conference.
  • Most recent post, pointing to the newly available Jerry's Brain app.

For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies here except as a (full-freight) paying customer. In that capacity I say: Check them out!

1) Scrivener Guide. Over the years, and most recently here, I have extolled the virtues of Scrivener as a major step forward in computerized writing tools. I'm grateful to my friend MG in the United Arab Emirates who has alerted me to a detailed, useful, very well-illustrated online guide to advanced fluency with Scrivener that is available free here.

The guide is by Nicole Dionisio, it's part of the MakeUseOf series, you can download it as a 14MB PDF file, or you can read it on line. In whatever incarnation, it's highly interesting and valuable. Here's how it shows one of Scrivener's advanced features -- setting word-count goals for different chapters or sections of a writing project.


I don't use this when writing articles with Scrivener, but I have when writing books. Among other things, it helps in setting the daily output targets that are crucial to maintaining sanity through the months-long slog of finishing a protracted writing project.

Here's an illustration of another surprisingly useful tool: subtle but immediately recognizable variations in shading to let you compare various revisions in a piece of writing.


And -- why not? -- here is one more: a name generator. It's a feature that is meant for novelists and that I don't use but which indicates some of the elegant ingenuity of the program.

I have used Scrivener for years but still learned things from this guide. It is particularly useful in clarifying that Scrivener does not aspire to replace the functions of a normal word processor. Indeed, the last step you take before printing out or emailing a document from Scrivener is to export it to Word, for final formatting and spell-checking. Instead its features address the strategic aspects of writing books, academic papers, or long articles: how to keep your research material close at hand, how to organize your arguments, how to keep track of revisions and pentimenti. Check it out.

Thumbnail image for KeepLogo.jpeg

2) Google survival rate. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was wary of Google Keep, an embryonic Evernote competitor, because Google had killed off so many similar interesting-seeming products in the previous months.

The author of the site replies as follows:

I think you may be overly skittish here. I collected data on 350 Google things and ran some statistics on it all.

Results: Only ~1/3 of Google products have ever been killed, and in particular, the 5-year survival estimate for Keep produced by my final model is ~60%, which seems like a pretty reasonable risk to take if the product is useful, and especially given that you correctly point
out that
> 1) Google has often orphaned services, but it has never "disappeared" data. (I am using "to disappear" in the transitive-verb sense familiar from Latin American politics.) It has been a leader in making sure you could make your own copies, or extract, any of your info that was in its part of the cloud.
The loss of Reader is a serious blow to many people including myself, but let's not go overboard and damn Google for worse than it deserves.

The study at the Gwern site is quite a tour de force. I won't attempt to summarize it but will just say, if you're interested in statistical analyses, you will find this interesting. I hope it's right about Keep, but for now Evernote does the job for me.

Thumbnail image for Scrivener-Icon.pngAs the years wear on, my esteem grows for the writing program Scrivener as the single best bargain ever offered in the software world. And I mean: ever. It was originally for the Mac but now comes in a Windows version; it costs all of $45; and it is a program that seems ideally tailored for the way that many writers, including me, would like to approach their work. You can see its (quite impressive) list of testimonials here; read a detailed description of its power from a U Chicago student, Noah Ennis, here; and consider some previous discussion here and here. I've now written two books, two or three dozen Atlantic articles, and many other reports and presentations with Scrivener. I was pleased that its creator, Keith Blount of Cornwall, England, appeared in this space as a guest blogger two years ago.


There is a new entry in the lineup from Literature and Latte, Blount's little software company. It is called Scapple, and I mentioned it earlier, during its beta period, here. It costs all of $15 (technically $14.99), and if you have any interest in software or idea-sketching, and if you are using a Mac, you would be crazy not to try it out. I'm using it right now for a big forthcoming project.
That is all.

I won't try to explain this but will just suggest that you give it a try. It's Search Visualizer, a web-based system that processes search results from Google and other search engines and displays them in visual form. Here's an idea of how the results look, based on a sample search for data about the 787 Dreamliner's battery problems.

I've tried a variety of "search front-ends" over the years and so far have always ended up going back to plain old Google. I don't know whether Search Visualizer would meet the long-term usefulness test, but its approach is interesting. The company lays out scenarios in which it thinks such visualization would pay off. Over to you to see whether in your search circumstances it makes sense.

I don't know anything about Jack Baty, listed as "Director of Unspecified Services" at his eponymous site. Mascot photo from his site at right; I have no idea whether that's actually him. But I think we have some things in common, based on his recent post about the main problem has had with software for organizing info, tasks, and other digital junk. As Baty puts it, emphasis added:

Keeping track of All the Things(™) isn't that difficult. Or at least it shouldn't be, but I find it nearly impossible.
The problem for me isn't a lack of software, it's the abundance of great software. Here is a list of software I've used to keep track of all the digital detritus in my life:

... and he goes on to list nearly a dozen programs, most of which I've used -- along with many others! He doesn't even get into such timeless classics as Lotus Agenda, the still-evolving Zoot, TheBrain, MindManager, OmniFocus, Scapple, Thinking Rock, and .... Wisest not to get me started.

In practical terms, what Baty says is where I've also ended up:

While I love them all, I've whittled it down to 3 apps: Tinderbox, Evernote, and DEVONthink.
Tinderbox is my notebook. Evernote is my junk drawer. DEVONthink is my filing cabinet.

He goes on to explain what those analogies mean. For the record, Tinderbox and DEVONthink are Mac-only; Evernote is trans-platform; plucky Zoot is Window-only; and Lotus Agenda runs on DOS! Of course, stay on the lookout for whatever David Allen and Intentional Software are cooking up.

For decades now it's been a careful balance, between the time I "save" through new "productive" software, and the time I "waste" trying out each new release. I am somehow relieved to know that I'm not the only one contemplating this balance.

I'll spare you my whole speech about the inklings of another at-least-mini golden age of Interesting Software, especially though not only for the Mac. I consider Scrivener the single most useful writing program I've ever come across; I'm fascinated by Tinderbox and TheBrain; I have come to trust and rely on both Evernote and DevonThink; and so on. Last year Scrivener's creator, Keith Blount, served a stint as guest-blogger in this space, as did the creator of Tinderbox and a co-creator of TheBrain.

I'll spare you that speech (and you can see links to some past articles about Scrivener here) so as to get right to the new program I want to mention. It is called Scapple; it is from Literature and Latte, the small English company that produces Scrivener; it's still in open beta; and it is so easy to use and understand that you can very quickly grasp what it might and might not do for you. Here are two drawings that illustrate the pre-computer function that this program is meant to replicate, and its Scapple-ized equivalent.



An explanation of the program is here; it includes the link to download the beta version, which I'm not giving you directly because I think it's worth reading the background. This same page also leads to a very large number of messages from beta-version users discussing Scapple's ups and downs. I like this program a lot and think Mac users will find it worth a try.

Meanwhile, if you do any writing of longer-than-blog-post scale, seriously: check out Scrivener. That is all for now. NO I HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN that updates are due on Atlas Shrugged guy; Foxconn pics; Jobim; the filibuster; and much more.

1) If you are a Mac user, be sure to check out the remaining days of the "Writers' Festival 2012" special on the idea-organizer Tinderbox and several other programs. Tinderbox is very complex software with a learning curve even more formidable than that of my still-beloved Windows idea-organizer Zoot. But, as with Zoot, I have come to appreciate and rely on it more as I have spent more and more time with it -- several years with Tinderbox, now nearly two decades with Zoot. The creator of Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, appeared in this space last year as a guest blogger. (I plugged the "Festival" once before, here.)

1A) An interesting thing about the "interesting-software" realm for the Mac, where I've done most of my work for 4+ years after fleeing the nightmare known as Windows Vista, is that the comparatively smaller number of high-end programs (relative to the Windows universe) means that people spend more time thinking about how the programs might work together. The usual-suspect lineup here includes the unbelievably wonderful writing program Scrivener; the powerful data-storing and -searching program DevonThink Pro; Tinderbox; the Omni, CircusPonies, and Aqua Minds families; cross-platform programs like The Brain and Mind Manager; and some others.

I note this as an intro to mentioning a useful step one-two-three demo on how to make Tinderbox and Scrivener essentially work as one unified program. It is by a British Tinderbox tech whiz named Mark Anderson. He has also explained, in a link I'll provide another time, how to get info out of MindManager and into Tinderbox.

2) Scrivener is out in a new version, release 2.3. The program is only $45, and it offers a 30-day free trial. Since switching to it four years ago I've consistently viewed it as the very best program for writing, ever.

Scrivener is not concerned with "tactical" issues -- formatting, fonts, spell check, and all of that. Indeed, once you've finished the "real" writing in Scrivener you export the results to Word, Google Docs, or some other program for the last-minute tidying up. Instead Scrivener excels in helping you organize and plan what you're writing. You won't hurt my feelings if you try it and don't like it. But for me it has been wonderful -- and you'll see that I'm not the only one. (My two latest books, and several dozen most recent articles, were all produced via Scrivener.) A Windows version is now available, but I haven't tried it myself. Keith Blount, creator of Scrivener, also did a stint here as a guest blogger. For the record: I tried to get Tom Davis, the creator of Zoot, signed up for guest-blogger duty in the same stretch as Bernstein and Blount, but he was too busy cranking out a new release of his program.

3)  I have heard from a number of people about the virtues of an email anti-spam program called SpamSieve. (For instance, Michael Ham has written about it here.) I haven't used it, since it doesn't work with (a) the web version of Gmail, which has its own very powerful anti-spam routines, (b) the latest release of Thunderbird, which I use to create offline email archives and whenever I get too annoyed by new-look Gmail. But if it fits your needs, for instance with Apple's email programs, SpamSieve could be worth checking out.

4) Speaking of Thunderbird, the chair of the Mozilla Foundation, Mitchell Baker, has announced that Mozilla will no longer develop new features for Thunderbird. Or, as she put it, "continued innovation in Thunderbird is not a priority for Mozilla's product efforts." Sigh. Sic transit gloria Thunderbirdi. But the latest release, version 13+ on the Mac, seems a lot sprightlier than earlier versions. And after the jump, a nerdish tip* some readers have sent for keeping it from hogging all CPU cycles on a laptop.

Enjoy. And now back to Federer-Murray. [Update: announcer just now in Australia, where I am, says of Murray, "If he wins, he'll be a Briton. If he loses, he's a Scot." Like everyone, I love Federer's elegance. But this brings out the Scottish patriot/chauvinist in me. I'd like 'em both to win.]

Last month I mentioned that among my perennial favorites in the "interesting software" category is The Brain, known in a previous incarnation as Personal Brain and out now with a substantially revised The Brain 7. Here's how it looks:


Steve Zeoli, of Vermont, has over the years proudly identified himself as a sufferer of CRIMP -- Compulsive Reactive Information Manager Purchasing. This is of course the same syndrome I euphemistically describe as "a taste for 'interesting' software," and it has led Zeoli, like me, to keep trying every new info-handling system that appears. It has also led him to a series of illuminating chronicles about these programs. My purpose in writing today is to point toward some of his recent entries on the newest edition of The Brain (he is also the source of the screenshot above). They are:

- An overview of the Brain's improvements, strengths, and limits;
- a description of how he uses The Brain as a "commonplace book";
- how he uses Tinderbox for the same purpose (hey, endlessly trying out new tools for the same job is an "opportunity," not a waste or distraction, in CRIMP-land);
- an early Tinderbox-v-Brain smackdown highlighting their respective traits;
- and others you'll see on his site.

If you are interested in software, you will be interested in this.

Winter is coming, as they would say in Game of Thrones land. By which I mean not the actual season but grim-toned political discussion ahead. So again let's pause to look on the bright side with:

1) Chinese hoops. Here is a very nice brief video, courtesy of reader AK and SB Nation, of Stephon Marbury joyously celebrating with his Beijing Ducks teammates after their victory over the Guangdong Southern Tigers to win the Chinese Basketball Association championship. Really, this is heartwarming in about twelve different ways -- and a partial balm for this season's untimely end to Linsanity.

2) Aussie beer. The promised full retrospective report is still to come. But as a guide to anyone who wonders whether Australia's brewers, long famed for blah watery lagers, could produce something more ambitious, here are another two signs of progress.

One is the Stow Away IPA entry in the James Squire line of craft brews, shown below in its natural setting in a James Squire brewpub in Hobart. (The company itself is based in Sydney -- and is owned by Kirin, which in turn is part of the Mitsubishi combine.) Stow Away is the purple one on the left and is about the closest thing I've found in the Antipodes to the current American-style IPAs.


Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for TasmaniaBrewpub.jpgHere is how it looks in action at the brewpub, at right, showing its convincing rich hue. It's the one being held; the other is the Four Wives Pilsener. Be warned that until the Aussie palate becomes fully evolved and moves the market with it, this still seems relatively hard to find. Many "bottle shops" that stock the rest of the James Squire line seem not to know about Stow Away.

The other candidate: from the Malt Shovel Mad Brewers (a James Squire subsidiary), a short-term summer seasonal offering called "Hoppy Hefe." I wouldn't have picked this out as a Hefeweizen, since it doesn't look cloudy or taste particularly of wheat. But it certainly is full of hops, which makes it unusual locally and for which I am grateful. It's also full of alcohol: 7% (like Supplication and some others from the famed Russian River line), so a little goes a long way. This southern-hemisphere summer season is ending rather than beginning, and so is this beer's run, so if you see a bottle, don't miss the chance. Side note: beer is expensive in Australia, largely because of taxes, and this is extra-premium priced, at roughly $10 for a 640ml bottle, about the size of two "normal" bottles. Close-up shot of the bottle, so you can recognize it, below.

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3) Interesting software. Over the years -- really, decades -- I have ended up playing working with the same set of "interesting" programs for storing info, classifying it and moving it around, and generally observing the relationship between software and thought. The perennial favorites include Zoot, Windows-only, which I've used for nearly 20 years and is recently available in a whole new version; Tinderbox, Mac only, a more recent favorite;  Mind Manager, Windows and Mac, which I find useful for outlining (as I do OmniOutliner, for Mac and iPad); and among others (including the indispensable Mac duo of Scrivener and DevonThink) there is also Personal Brain, for Windows, Mac, and Linux. I won't take the time to lay out the whole theory of this idiosyncratic but seductive program. I will say that a new version, The Brain 7, is out in beta, and I've been using and liking it. If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, you will be interested in this.

Thus endeth the uplift for now.

I've mentioned several times my use of and enthusiasm for Scrivener, a $39.95 writing program put out by a two-person operation in Cornwall, England. It's Mac-only, so stop right here if that means you can't consider it. (With VMware Fusion, I can happily run any Windows program on a Mac, but things don't work the other way around.)


Actually, don't stop right here, since the traits that make this program (logo at left) valuable are in principle ones that could be applied in other writing and research programs. Because it helps explain these useful features, and not because it's essentially a free ad for Scrivener (with which I have no connection of any sort, other than as a customer), I quote a note from a recent convert, Noah Ennis, a graduating senior at the University of Chicago. He talks mainly about two of the program's features: a simple-sounding but surprisingly important "full screen mode," which blocks out everything else happening on the computer so you can concentrate just on what you're writing; and a "project" organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you're writing.  Again the point about what follows is, it tells us something about this particular program, which may or may not suit your computer-using tastes; but it also suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think. Ennis wrote this to me because I suggested the program to him. He says:

I don't think I've ever been excited about software, but this is something that's such a quantitative increase in efficiency (by lowering the energy tax on storage, retrieval, and switching between documents) that it qualitatively changes the way I read and write on the computer. Here are four areas in which it's drastically changed my computer life:

1. It makes all writing projects, but especially any large project, easier and more pleasant. My old method was to have a bunch of different Word documents open, and to move between them with a lot of time spent searching for windows and a lot of redundant writing. For [his undergraduate thesis], I ended up with something like 40 documents of which I only ever used 8 or 10. In Scrivener everything is instantly accessible and easy to switch to, which paradoxically means that I can write more haphazardly-- I can paste large block quotes from sources instead of putting a link, I can keep multiple outlines going at the same time as I'm writing. To say nothing of the full screen mode. I'm completely baffled that appleworks, word, and textedit haven't done something as simple as allow document loading from a side bar, or implement a fullscreen button (or if they have, I'm baffled at my and my friend's ignorance of these features). I'm convinced that if I had Scrivener when I was writing the [thesis], I could have saved literally dozens of hours of redundant work simply from better organization.

2. Scrivener means that I can keep all of my lists and files in one or two central places, instead of in 50 word documents in my OS X dock. I used to have to hunt for the appropriate document every time I wanted to store a word, quote, book title, new concept, article, person's name, block of text to read later, etc.. Now I can do it in one place (and again, paradoxically, this means I can multiply the number of bins I have because the attention externality of each bin is so much lower. So I can make a bin for quotes about "ways of reading" where before that level of specificity would take too much time to access quickly and frequently).

Following previous dispatches here and here about the endless, quixotic search for the ideal outlining program, many people wrote in to sing the praises of a Windows-based program I had not been aware of: InfoQube, or IQ. (Hardee-har!! I get it!) Sample testimonial note from someone who identifies himself as "a highly satisfied user" and who doesn't appear to be connected to the company:

"I'd like to let you know that InfoQube (IQ), while still a bit unknown and not out of beta yet (but soon to reach v1.0 ), is a very powerful Outliner too!

"In my humble opinion, probably the most powerful and flexible out there. Really. I have been using it for the last 2 years, doing incredible things with it... Not only does it do outlining, but it also has a calendar, Gantt charts, pivot tables, etc.

"It's not your typical software : it takes an open mind and a bit of reading (not that much!) to understand its principles. These small initial efforts are quite rewarding, that's for sure!
Have a look at it (Download), and feel free to ask questions on our friendly Forum. ["Our" = user community, not speaking for the company itself] Pierre Paul Landry, our IQ talented, dedicated and friendly developer, answers many questions himself."

Here's a thematic illustration from the company's site, on the "Qube" theme. (Click for bigger.) Disappointingly, the actual program is confined to normal 2-D computer screen displays. I have not yet tried InfoQube myself, but I received enough mail from people who have that it seemed worth mentioning.


While I'm on the subject of satisfied users, I have mentioned several times the modestly-priced, Mac-based writing program Scrivener, on which I am relying for more and more of my work. An impressive list of writers (mainly novelists) who have become devotees is here. Worth considering.

While out of range for the past week, I've not weighed in on a lot of subjects I would normally have a view on, from the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, to the nature and function of the TSA, to the implications of press and judicial developments within China, to the latest twist in China's policy on the RMB.

I will plan to catch up, on each and all, in the next day or two. For the moment ... how about a promising entry from the world of "interesting" technology?

What I have in mind is Thinklinkr, a free, "cloud"-based outlining program that very much deserves attention. Since the dawn of the personal computing age, outlining programs have constituted a fascinating but often heartbreaking product category. Fascinating because they are an essential component of electronic "thinking tools." (Another essential component: systems for collecting, organizing, and retrieving info. And ideally one more: something to do the actual thinking and writing. So far, no dice.) Heartbreaking because several of the best entries have atrophied or been orphaned, and others are minority tastes.

Perhaps it's mainly rosy retrospect, but I still think the classic DOS outliner GrandView was the best I've ever used. Background on GrandView here. Those I use and like these days include the elegantly minimalist BrainStorm (PC only); the intriguing-in-many-ways PersonalBrain (PC, Mac, LInux); the also-intriguing MindManager (PC, Mac); OmniOutliner (Mac); plus the outlining functions in the wonderful Mac-only writing program Scrivener; plus the outlining functions in the upcoming Version 6 release of the wonderful PC-only "idea processor," Zoot. (Zoot 6 is in late beta.) And some others I am forgetting right now.

I give that long warmup to say that I've always cared about this field, and I find Thinklinkr a worthy new contender,as a very fast, very flexible online outlining tool. Its basis in the "cloud" means that you don't have to worry about Mac/PC issues nor about synching among your different machines. You do, of course, have to be online. It also keeps track of previous versions of an outline, and allows users in differently places to collaborate in real time. Worth checking out. (Partial screenshot below, and further info below that.)


Reference section: For a history of the outlining field in general, start here; for a later "rediscovery" of outlines, go here. For my previous perspectives on and judgments about other "thinking" systems, see this about Zoot; this about BrainStorm; and this about Personal Brain. For a blog by the designers of Thinklinkr, see a sample entry here and main page here. I have written to the company to ask about the ideas behind the program and will post the answers shortly. Thanks to Michael Ham for the lead.