Tinderbox In Litigation

Tinderbox offers intriguing and very appealing features. The software provides some powerful analytical tools, accompanied by visual representation. However, a very steep learning curve, severe limitations in the type of data that can be handled, and overall difficulty in using data once entered may not make it a good fit for litigation management or case analysis… i.e. it’s your choice whether or not to follow the siren’s call of the perfect case analysis tool.

Tinderbox – Exuberance, Frustration

Exuberance– What it does: Tinderbox collects notes or text in small ‘buckets’ or ‘containers.’ The cool part, each bucket or container can, itself, contain other buckets…. think stacking Russion doll.  Further, each note/bucket can exist as an alias inside other areas.

You can view these notes/buckets through two representations: a mindmap style representation; or, a hierarchical outline style. In map view, the ability to create links amongst various note buckets also can lead to interesting analysis and can springboard a brainstorming session. The outline view can be further manipulated to display information inside each note, a kind of table with additional information displayed in columns.

Even more interesting, intriguing and useful, a bucket can also act as an ‘agent,’ think of it as a Smartfolder in Finder. The agent will collect all relevant notes and buckets and can sort them by date, name or other specified criteria. So, one can create agents which track all people in a case and sort them by name, or all facts and sort them by date, place, type etc.

Agents can also go one step further and, if certain criteria are met, actually alter the appearance or other characteristics of a bucket which meets the criteria.  For example, a case may contain many facts, some of which are just plain ole’ chronological facts and others which might be medical treatment.  In the fourth gallery image, an agent identified those ‘medical’ facts, changed their color to ‘blue’ and added a ‘blue flag’ so that they stand out in the chronology. Really, really slick.

Another slick feature is the ‘wordcloud’ view, image #5 in the gallery, called “Common Words” in the Tinderbox menu. It gives you a hyperlinked word cloud of words contained in your Tinderbox document, the more frequent the word occurs, the larger the font. Clicking on the word takes you to a list of all notes containing that word. But, clicking on the individual note doesn’t jump you to the word inside the note… which brings us to the frustrations.

Frustration– The global find function is limited to a two word boolean search. Worse, there is no global find and replace readily available.

The biggest pitfall with Tinderbox is that to sort, filter or otherwise ‘mine’ your data, you need to create an ‘agent.’ There are no on the fly filtering tools available. Imagine if, in iTunes, every time you wanted to look at just the albums by Jay-Z you had to (1) open a separate window; (2) type out the following arcane command “Artist(Jay-Z)&Prototype=album”; (3) close the separate window; and, (4) open the newly created agent so you could see just those albums by Jay-Z. Those are, at a minimum the steps required just to gather all albums by Jay-Z.

Two blogs have both attempted to demonstrate Tinderbox as a useful tool for lawyers. Attorney Steve Winnick’s blog Winvictus’s Summary Judgment describes an attempt to create a Tinderbox based case management tool called Summary Judgment.  In the most recent post, eighteen steps are required to get information into Tinderbox for case management/litigation purposes. An older blog, Tinderlaw, apparently dead ended since the last post regarding Tinderbox back occurred in September ’09.

Further frustration lies in using Tinderbox for anything other than storing text notes. There is no way for the software to efficiently include images, audio or video files. You *can* link to a file as part of a note bucket, but this step alone is often difficult, requiring a manual drill down through finder because drag and drop rarely worked. Of course, this mere linkage does not index any document which might have indexable content (e.g. Word documents or PDFs containing rendered text).

Finally, Tinderbox appears to be coded in java or some other language. In other words, it’s not written in Mac OS X’s programming language and therefore loses much of the shine you may have come to expect from Mac software. Additionally, the software employs some rather strange keyboard shortcuts. And, last but not least, the software appears to be entirely dependent on a single developer. After watching Journler go down in flames, it would be difficult to put too much data in software that depends so much on a single individual.

So, in summary, if you wanted to plan out every possible need for your data, in advance, take the time to learn what borders on an arcane scripting language, and become familiar with some rather awkward keyboard shortcuts, you might find Tinderbox useful… Tinderbox does offer some very powerful features and interesting takes on data mining. But, as a lawyer working daily with data and the need to be flexible in searching, filtering and finding information, I find it more frustrating than useful.

Tinderbox costs $249 per license although a ‘limited’ version can be downloaded for a free test drive, the limitation being only a small number of notes can be created. For what it’s worth, Maclitigator payed full price in order to put the software through its paces. Prior to publication, developer Mark Bernstein was given an opportunity to review the post and comment or suggest anything that may have been overlooked. No response was received.

Update January 22, 2010: Mark Bernstein emailed me and posted a detailed comment below. The comments address some concerns raised above, but not all.

One more positive point needs mentioning: Tinderbox is the only software that allows both data mining and a very useful mindmap style presentation. Personal Brain does present a ‘mindmap’ to some extent, but not nearly as flexible as Tinderbox because each ‘node’ ‘bucket’ or ‘thought’ can only exist in one place at a time in Personal Brain.  The Tinderbox approach is reminiscent of those big white boards/cork boards that you see used by police detectives in movies (think Sopranos, Russell Crowe in American Gangster, Dexter). For some interesting ‘task board’ layouts, look here. This aspect of Tinderbox makes it very attractive, but the other negatives outweigh any benefit of a pretty picture.

9 thoughts on “Tinderbox In Litigation

  1. Sorry you were frustrated! And doubly sorry about missing your email. Your review was sent to my personal mailbox on Tuesday night, I happened to be on the road in New York, and as it happened my reliable MacBook Air was on the blink. I first saw your email about 12 hours after the post; sorry!

    I think you may have overlooked some useful filtering tools — especially sorting containers and regular expression searches.

    For finding albums by Jay-Z in Tinderbox, I’d do one of two things:

    a) Use the Find window to search for notes with Performer containing Jay-Z, OR

    b) Sort my container of albums by Performer, and find Jay-Z.

    iTunes has a nicer interface for routine searches, but Tinderbox can handle a wider range of queries: it’s easy to look, for example, for all memos, depositions, and filings after last December that mentioned Forsyth or Bustard. That’s advantage of agents; once you’ve formulated that question, you’ve go the answer *now* and the agent remains to give you an updated answer *later* should you need it.

    With regard to small developers, it might give you some confidence that Eastgate’s been writing hypertext tools like Tinderbox since 1982. Tinderbox files are standard XML: your data are yours, and you should have little difficulty moving data elsewhere if you wish. Moreover, Tinderbox’s export tools are extremely flexible: if you want to export from Tinderbox to nearly any modern format, you should find the task straightforward.

  2. I’ll just echo what Mark said about data portability. I’ve been using TInderbox since v1.0 and I’ve never had a problem getting data out of it. In fact, one of the reasons I purchased it, and continue to use it regularly, is that there is no lock-in for the data. Everything is just an XML text file that’s easy to use with other tools.

    It’s not written in Java, but I do agree that Tinderbox has its own aesthetic that doesn’t quite look like a standard Mac OS X program. But it has been getting more visual polish over the last several releases and that’s a good thing.

  3. I haven’t needed a global find and replace, but if I did, I might just open the document in BBEdit and take it from there. BUT I would have a back-up and be very careful about any boolean searches, because I would not want to inadvertently change any of the code. I haven’t tried this yet, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. You might ask Mark Berstein, though. And if you don’t have BBEdit, there’s its free and able little brother, TextWrangler.

  4. By the way, Tinderbox’s find dialog can search for any regular expression — not just two word boolean queries.

    Also, your agent example is more complicated than necessary; you could just make an agent and search for “Jay-Z” and that’d do the trick. The extra clause, “Prototype=album”, is handy because it restricts the search to albums, but it’s certainly not necessary. (Conversely, there are times when I wish it were easier to tell the iTunes store that I’m looking for Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic compositions, not his performances or his songs or his lectures or albums paying tribute to his legacy or podcasts or….)

  5. As to aesthethics, I think Tinderbox was always ahead of Mac OS, be it the old OS 9 or today’s Snow Leopard. You can really make it look almost whatever you wish.

    Mark Stoneman’s advice to use BBEdit for finding and replacing is – sorry to say – rather ridiculous if you consider that you want to replace a word or a character in the whole Tinderbox document. So you export a file with a hundred or more text conteiners to a word processor, then do search and replace and then what… manually copy and paste each piece of text back to its container in Tinderbox ?

  6. @Bernstein – “Regular expression” in Tinderbox means:

    A+* (notes starting with A with at least one other letter)
    A[a-e] Aardvards and Adams but not Affleck or Avogadro
    When.*reasons (When..(any text)..reasons)

    This need for symbolic language is not evident from the search box. Moreover, although ‘technically’ a regular expression search, the use of symbolic language is a very outdated method, well beyond the comprehension of most modern computer users. A user shouldn’t need to lookup a symbol when they need to do a search.

  7. I disagree that symbolic regular expressions are outdated, and I think most software professionals would agree with me. They’re widely used in just about every professional tool textual analysis tool, most modern programming languages, and in just about every full-featured text editor.

    There’s simply no alternative that offers anywhere near the expressive power of regular expressions. And, of course, you can simply type a word or two when that’s what you need — and in my experience, two-term Boolean phrase matching will in fact cover 80-90% of most users’ needs.

  8. Mariusz: I think Mr. Stoneman was suggesting performing a search-and-replace on the Tinderbox XML file itself, rather than on exported files. This *can* be a useful technique.

    And in any case it’s a nice illustration of the advantage of open XML files: you can modify the file using standard tools to accomplish things Tinderbox doesn’t anticipate.

  9. Thanks, Pete.

    I found your review very helpful.

    As a non-software professional, I would nearly some fairly explicit guidance about “regular expressions” before I had a clue what was understood.

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