MacOS Automation: Accessing Academic Resources

Keyboard Maestro Textexpander.png

I shared an iOS Shortcut recently for opening academic journal articles via EZProxy. It’s a simple trick to short circuit the tedious cut and paste method . All it does is copy the EZproxy address 1 to the start of a url to give you access to resources via your own university library. Here are a couple of simple methods for doing the same thing using macOs automation tools.

Open Closed Access Journals with EZProxy and Keyboard Maestro

I am slowly coming to terms with some of the intricacies of macOS automation. Even so, I find Keyboard Maestro can be a little overwhelming at times. For one thing, it has a seriously misleading name, going well beyond the keyboard to hook into anything you could possibly want to do with macOs automation. The good news is you don’t have to be a coding grand master for it to be useful. This little macro is proof of that. Keyboard maestro can even simulate keystrokes, so using this method can even save you from hitting return.

macOS Automation Keyboard Maestro
Keyboard Maestro can simulate system shortcuts and keystrokes so one hotkey can do all the work

Automate EZProxy with TextExpander

Built in Macros come standard with any decent text expansion app. I’m still using TextExpander, simply because there are no alternatives on iOS. As good as it is, the fact that I have Alfred on hand means TextExpander could probably be made redundant on macOS.

To make this work with TextExpander use the builtin macros to both grab the system clipboard macro and simulate keystrokes. My snippet looks like this:

http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=%clipboard %key:return%

Obviously, you need to copy the URL before you type the abbreviation so you’re a keystroke ahead with the Keyboard Maestro version, if that matters to you.

macOS Automation
TextExpander's builtin macros can add the system clipboardd to a snippet, simulate keystrokes, and more

Other Options

I already mentioned Alfred, which is easily as powerful as Keyboard Maestro. This would be a trivial problem to solve with Alfred, either by creating a workflow, or by using Alfred’s text expansion utility.

Another option is to use a clipboard manager. With Copied, for example, you can setup templates to transform the text you copy, and activate them with hotkeys. Similar functionality can be found in Pastebot. 2

  1. Most university libraries, and some public libraries have an EZProxy address, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one you can access.
  2. Unfortunately, neither app has been updated in a while, so I can’t vouch for their longevity. Copied is still working perfectly for me on macOS Mojave

Show and Tell — 29 October, 2018

Web discoveries for researchers, students and writers

Research Tools

‎Case Medical Research | the App Store

I intend to do this justice by covering it in more detail. In the meantime, Case uses machine learning to track medical research. Technically it is aimed at research beyond my own wheelhouse, but I have personal reasons for keeping up with specialist medical research so I have had cause to play around with the app. It is still developing, but the underlying technology is interesting and the app is very promising. If you are doing research in this area, Case is a worthy addition to your workflow.

Turn the Web Into a Database | Mixnode

An interesting idea, and a potentially excellent research tool for analysing data from the web. You can get free credits to check it out, before you start blowing your funding.

Transcribe Interviews | oTranscribe

Here's something I had forgotten about. A self-contained, and feature rich web app for transcription. It works pretty well for transcription on the fly, but don’t get clearing your browser cache or your work is hosed.

Markdown Tools

Zettlr | Home

Yet another Markdown editor, this time with a specific focus on academic writing. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if this is necessary given the excellent tools already out there.  For academic writing in markdown, I recommend the powerful MultiMarkdown Composer 1. Still, Zettlr might suit others who don’t mind Electron apps quite so much.

HackMD | Collaborative markdown notes

I wasn’t aware of this one until a fellow traveller brought it to my attention. It looks a little different to the now defunct Editorially, but one can only hope this will last longer than that platform did.  I am yet to properly put it through its paces,  but I'm looking forward to doing just that.

Draft | Write Better

While we are on the topic, Draft has been my preferred option for online Markdown collaboration. If you can actually convince another academic to collaborate in earnest using Markdown, Draft is free to use. Although, it is still very basic.  Penflip, is another option, or if you want something with client apps, Quip is probably the best option.

Create a Webpage With Just Markdown | Oscarmorrison/md-Page

If you want to create a simple online bio without coding or dealing with a database, this ought to work.

Web Tech

GitHub Actions | GitHub

Github is opening the beta for their new workflow automation platform. More evidence that Microsoft sees a move toward open collaborative systems as profitable.

Hello P5.js Web Editor! | Processing Foundation

This looks like a lot of fun. P5.js is an online editor for learning to code in a visual way. It helps students learn JavaScript, HTML, and CSS by creating graphics with code.

Photo by henry perks on Unsplash

  1. Also writing by an academic

A Roundup of iOS Shortcuts Galleries and Resources

Ios Shortcuts Galleries And Resources.png

With the buzz around iOS Shortcuts, I thought it would be useful to do a round up of resources for sharing and discovering iOS Shortcuts, and for learning how to build your own. A number of galleries and exchanges have started to emerge in the past few weeks. Believe it or not, the app formerly known as Workflow was released back in 2014,  so there are also a number of established resources worth knowing about.

New iOS Shortcuts Galleries and Exchanges

RoutineHub

This one looks very promising. The developer was clever enough to add an API, so users can incorporate actions to automate updates to complex Shortcuts. That feature alone should make RoutineHub the frontrunner.

Shortcuts Gallery

This one was looking likely for about a week, until Routine Hub introduced its API. Still growing, just not as fast.  They have started to run competitions for signups too, which puts me off to be honest.  You may still find some interesting creations here

Sharecuts

By all accounts, this was one of the first galleries. It was setup by users on the developer Beta, so they had a head start. Unfortunately, it is still locked down to new users, which means it is not as useful as other repositories at this point. There is some quality control, nonetheless the admins have missed an opportunity here by not trusting the community.

Shortcut Station

May or may not be the newest of the bunch, but the one I learned of most recently. Expect this one to become popular, as it was shared in the recent edition of the MacStories Newsletter.

Helpful Resources for iOS Shortcuts and Automation

r/Shortcuts | Reddit

The Shortcuts sub on reddit is by far the best place to find information about Shortcuts. You might have to wade through some inane posts, and silliness at times, but it is worth enduring.

Automating iOS: A Comprehensive Guide to URL Schemes and Drafts Actions | MacStories

Although this guide is focused on Drafts, learning how URL schemes work will take your Shortcuts game to another level. The post has aged well, the author was a big loss to the site.

Club MacStories

Anyone who has followed the Workflow/Shortcuts story will be aware of the role that Federico Viticci has played in popularising the app. More than that, MacStories has been a kind of vanguard of iOS Automation. In depth examples of advanced workflows and Shortcuts are shipped almost every week with Club MacStories. A membership will also grant you access to an impressive archive of Shortcuts.

Hacking around with JavaScript and Shortcuts in iOS 12

One of the more exciting additions to Shortcuts is the ability to run arbitrary Javascript on a web page. This has opened up all kinds of possibilities, as demonstrated in this post from Chris Hutchinson

Workflow Help | Official Documentation

I don’t often recommend official documentation. The Workflow documentation, however, was always very comprehensive. Curiously, Apple have not yet bothered to update the guide.

Other Repositories and Sites Worth Visiting

Automation Orchard

I have my suspicions that Rose Orchard is not one person, but more like Inigo Montoya’s Dread Pirate Roberts. How else can you explain how she seems to be everywhere at once? This particular Orchard instance collates automation links. It has slowed down a little lately, but there is the Automators Podcast for would be automation disciples.

Workflow Directory

In the beginning there was Workflow which came with its own gallery. Once Apple acquired the app the gallery was one of the first things to be culled. Innovations like this one from Jordan Merrick help fill the gap for a time. I published a brief post about the directory, if you are so inclined. Otherwise, there is also plenty to learn on Jordan’s own site.

One Tap Less | Actions

This site hasn't been updated in some time, but it still hosts a number of interesting workflows/Shortcuts that still work. I’m putting it here as it remains a little piece of Workflow and iOS Automation history.

Shortcuts for Students and Academic Nerds

There is a growing collection of Shortcuts on this very site. Some generic, and many more that are aimed at writing, research and study:

iOS Shortcuts: Clipboard Shortcut for Bibliographic Data

Ios Shortcuts Book Scanner.png

I recently shared an iOS Shortcut for scanning citations directly from the barcode of a book. Handy as it is, I have another shortcut I’m getting a lot of mileage from when I write on my Mac. Both Zotero, and Bookends 1 can add references to your library directly by scanning different metadata, including any book’s ISBN. You can obviously search for the numbers, or type them out by hand, but this little trick can add items to your library by using an iOS device as a scanner.

Zotero Quick Add.png
Zotero can add items to your library automatically using metadata, such as the ISBN

The shortcut works by scanning the ISBN from a barcode of any book and copying it to the clipboard.  If the Universal Clipboard is working properly, the ISBN will become immediately available on the nearest Mac to paste into Zotero, or Bookends. I have also set it to copy the number to my clipboard manager in case the universal clipboard fails, as it does far too often 2.

This version of shortcut is configured to use my favourite clipboard manager, Copied. You could also use the equally impressive Paste, which is included with Setapp. Or any other app  with a URL scheme that uses iCloud sync, like Gladys or Yoink. You could even use Apples own Notes App in a pinch.

Download the shortcut and adapt it to your needs here: IBSN Scan To Copied

 

  1. These are the two I recommend, but other reference managers will do this too 
  2. I have lost hours troubleshooting the universal clipboard when it stops working, it’s not worth it.

Digital Privacy at the Border with 1Password and DEVONthink

digital privacy at the border

For whatever reason, people think of my country as progressive. A recent change to customs law might go some way to challenging that. Customs agents in New Zealand now have the power to demand security information including passwords, PIN numbers or biometric access to digital devices. They call it a ‘digital strip search’. If New Zealand has long been thought of as pioneering, I’m embarrassed to list this among our firsts. Assurances from customs that the threshold for search is high make no difference, the fact remains, the law exists. 1  What follows are some suggestions for apps and services that can help protect your digital privacy at the border.

First, note this is not legal advice, neither am I qualified to offer any. I am also basing this upon New Zealand customs law, which only covers the search of physical devices, and does not compel anybody to provide access to cloud services. 2 To state the obvious, you would do well to know the laws the that govern your border crossings, no matter where you travel. For the U.S, you could do worse than familiarise yourself with the recommendations from civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Digital Strip Search, an Apt Phrase

Most Academics have cause to travel often, and many carry sensitive information with them of one kind or another. My own work might be considered seditious in some parts of the world, 3 and I know plenty of academics and even grad students working under embargo, simply because that is how universities operate. To say nothing of our actual ‘private’ lives; iPhones with photos of family, personal messages, journal entries, medical information and so on. The phrase ‘digital strip search’ is apt, being submitted to such an invasion of privacy would make anyone would feel naked. If you would rather not put yourself through such an ordeal, 4 there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Apps and Services to Manage Digital Privacy

This assumes you are traveling with iOS devices and not a Mac. That is not to say this cannot be done with a Mac, just that the entire process is more involved for Mac users. The principles still apply. If you’re travelling with a laptop, you could do worse than follow the advice of Bruce Schneier. Either way, it is getting to the point where traveling with as little tech as possible is the right way to go, even if it is impractical. And what gear you do travel with should be kept as clean as possible. Time willing, I may come back to the idea of travelling with a Mac.

1Password

 

1password Digital Privacy At The Border
1Password's Cloud Vaults provide security and convenience for border crossing

I cannot bang the 1Password drum loud enough. In my experience it is the best password manager available. It actually includes a feature called Travel Mode, designed for this situation. There is a school of thought, however, to suggest it is a nice idea that is a bit misguided in practice. Whether or not you decide to use it, it is a nice option to have.  Although it's not obvious that travel vaults are missing, that the feature exists is not a secret, so I do understand the argument.

At the same time, if you have a subscription to 1Password, the cloud vaults provide a better option by making it possible to remove the app entirely and download everything at the other end. This way you are not setting a flag that advertises you are ‘hiding' something.  It does mean holding on to an extra piece of information, as you will need the encryption key, as well as your password to set it all up again. See below for places you might put that.

Secure Private Data with DEVONthink’s Strong Encryption

I have written about using DEVONthink for this purpose. DEVONthink goes beyond being outstanding software for managing data by including strong AES 256 bit encryption. Again, you hold the keys, which means anything you put inside a DEVONthink database can be locked behind first class encryption. DEVONthink can store practically any kind of data or document, making it ideal for this scenario. Syncing is easy to setup with your choice of providers, including iCloud Drive.

Devonthink Digital Privacy
DEVONthink's iOS app can help maintain privacy with its strong encryption and flexible syncing

Among DEVONthink’s strengths is its ability to compartmentalise data in different ways. Whether you do that by group, or you setup a separate database for the documents. It can give you granular control over what you sync and when. It will even let you use multiple cloud services simultaneously as it sync’s each database separately.

You can work out for yourself how best to set this up, but my preference would be to setup a special database and download it to my device when I need it. That way I can be deliberate about what data I need, and organise it accordingly. I can also avoid using excess data.

Boxcryptor and Sync.com

If you have no use for DEVONthink, you might consider using encrypted cloud storage. If you're serious about privacy, using DropBox or  iCloud is not enough. In the past I have happily endorsed Sync.com for approximating the convenience of Dropbox while offering much better security with end-to-end encryption. I still hold that service in high regard, especially now the app has better integration with the iOS Files app. They offer 5Gb of storage for free, which should be plenty for this scenario.

If you prefer the flexibility of sticking with your existing cloud storage service, then take a look at Boxcryptor. It is free to use if you only need to secure one service, but you will need a paid account to encrypt file names so bear that in mind when naming your files.

A Method for Digital Privacy at the Border

Once you have handed over your passcode, or consented to unlock your device with TouchID or FaceID, anything on it is fair game. Many apps provide an extra security layer, but the passcode is all that is needed to change either the finger, or face to get beyond most of them. The safest approach is to have nothing on your device. Setup these apps before you leave, and remove everything from your device. Myself, I would even setup a different iCloud account altogether.

Before you leave

Back everything up, obviously. Now do it again. Don't rely on iCloud backup alone. Ideally you will have at least a secondary location. I use iMazing for this, and all my backups are included in my Time Machine Off-site clone, and my Backblaze continuous cloud backup. Incidentally, if you use Backblaze you have another means for client-side encrypted storage. You can retrieve anything you need to on demand from your Backblaze locker. The way I figure, that even leaves me room to make the kind of screw ups that come with having attention madness.

If you're an iOS only user, I would seriously consider investing in some external storage to add a secondary backup. The Sandisk iXpand Drives tend to be the best, not only for the drive quality but they include software to handle the backup.

Once you are backed up, setup a new iCloud account. Note, your devices can be logged into more than one account for different services. For example, you can log into the App Store with one iCloud account, and use a different one for Photos, iCloud Drive and so on.

When you Arrive

This should be obvious. Either download the necessary apps to your alternate iCloud account, or log back into your ordinary account and do the same. This is time consuming and annoying — and it will cost you data — but consider the alternatives. In this part of the world, it now means a choice between being digitally naked or a NZ$5000 on the spot fine for refusing access. Considering how you will maintain your digital privacy at the border is no longer optional.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

  1. New Zealand customs have form that should make anyone wary
  2. Anyone with eyes can see how stupid this makes the law, so stupid it hurts.
  3. Posting this probably doesn’t aid my cause
  4. And you don’t have a spare $5000 to throw at the problem

Show and Tell — 8 October, 2018

Collected links for academics, students, and other nerds

Markdown Converter | OU Libraries Tools

I shared my Docverter Workflow recently. When I have the time, I will update it with a Stylesheet. In the meantime, here is a web service using Pandoc that has a few different styles for converting Markdown documents

Times Newer Roman Is a Sneaky Font Designed to Make Your Essays Look Longer | the Verge

File this under amusing. I’m not advocating you use it. In fact, it’s a shame to think of classes so boring the inspiration can’t be found to write the minimum. My problem was always the opposite, how to keep under the word limit.

Sans Forgetica | RMIT

Apparently it's fun with fonts week. I find this more interesting. It is designed to help you remember by making you work at reading your notes. Maybe an antidote to handwriting being the best cognitive medium for notes? Come to think of it, looking at my handwriting, illegibility may always have been the real advantage.

Firefox Monitor | Mozilla

 1Password  runs a service called  watchtower, which is built in to their apps. A basic version is available from their website, but the public version will only scan for affected sites, and not email address. This, from Mozilla, is more like a proactive version of Have I Been Pwnded. Mozilla's contribution to privacy and security has to be admired, the improvements to Firefox are making it more an more attractive give the developments with Chrome,  and Apple's decision to cash in on user security.

Why I'm Done With Chrome | a Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering

Speaking of Chrome,  here's Google again. It appears the time has come to delete Chrome. Sadly, like so many of these things that will be easier said than done

Bypass ‘Safari no Longer Supports Unsafe Extensions’ in Macos Mojave | George Garside

As for Safari, not that long ago I praised its new security features. Unfortunately, for all its convenience I'm now looking at the browser sideways. Say what you like about Apple's commitment to user security, but they are not without choices in how they enact it. If you have extensions you already trust but no longer work, workarounds are available. About that convenience….

Troy Hunt: Mmm… Pi-Hole…

If you want a more nuanced approach for controlling ads, and you enjoy tinkering with Raspberry Pi, this could be for you. Incidentally, there are ways to do something similar on some routers (such as the Synology), or a blunt force approach can be to edit your hosts file.

How to Build a Low Tech Website | Low Tech Mag

Another one for the tinkerers, I fancy this idea for a class project.

A Visualized History of Philosophy

More fun with web design and philosophy. This is an interactive, summarised and visualised history of philosophy. I will spare you the comments on auspicious absentees, or indeed on the philosophical decisions involved in drawing lines between names.  Although, for philosophy nerds that will be half the fun. Enjoy.

 

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Automate Referencing on iPad with Shortcuts and Zotero

Zotero Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad.png

For as long as the iPad has been an excellent device for focused writing, it has never been good for citations and referencing. Referencing on iPad remains the final, stubborn piece of the puzzle to fully untether iOS from the Mac for academic writing. It appears, without exception, the iOS is not yet viewed by developers of referencing software as a fully fledged computing platform. That leaves us with a choice between poorly designed companion apps, or hacking together a solution of our own. I have opted for the latter, by configuring different workflows using Apple’s Shortcuts app and the excellent Zotero API.

What follows is not a primer on referencing, rather it is a means for managing citations on iPad, or even iPhone in a pinch. It assumes some knowledge of Zotero, but that is not difficult to acquire. These tips will be useful regardless of whether you work with both macOS and iOS, or do everything on an iPad. With a little help from iOS Shortcuts, referencing on iPad is that little bit less painful.

Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

Getting Material into Zotero on iOS

 

Maybe one day we'll get extensible browsers on iOS. Until then, we still have JavaScript bookmarklets. Most of your research is done online anyway, so using the Zotero Bookmarklet in a web browser works just fine. The only real caveat is you want to get your references from a source that Zotero will recognise. That will usually mean a university library, and my EZProxy shortcut can help with that.

Another convenient option is to use the WorldCat Catalog. The WorldCat option has the added virtue of not needing a login, which makes it a hassle free way to get full bibliographic records. I have setup a shortcut that can be invoked from the widget to send a search query to WorldCat, and open the results in Safari. 1 Once you have the bibliographic record up, as long as you are logged in to Zotero, the Bookmarklet will scrape everything you need to populate your library with that record. Download the shortcut here:

WorldCat Web Search Shortcut

Cite as You Write on iOS

There are different ways to come at this. The method you choose will depend on a few variables. The biggest distinction is likely to be whether you work iOS only, or you also operate a Mac. However, there is also a question of how complex your work is, and whether or not you want to automate the process entirely, or you’re happy to manage a few aspects manually. If you are looking for the more comprehensive option, see the section below on rendering a bibliography.

Zotero Shortcuts Referencing On Ipad

 

If you write exclusively on iOS, and all you want to do is insert references from your Zotero library as you write, the following shortcut will do that. Invoke it from the widget to search your collection, and it will place a formatted in-text citation on the clipboard, eg. (Dickens, 1837, p. 21) 2  

Zotero Cite as You Write Shortcut

See below for how to automate the creation of your reference list.

Cite as You Write on iOS for macOS Users

Referecing on iPad

If you are also using a Mac, you only need to know how you intend to process your finished works so you know which cite key style to use. If you intend to use Zotero’s own RTF scanner, your citations must be enclosed by {curly braces}. If you’re a Pandoc user, no doubt you already know you need [square brackets], among other things. 3 You can download a workflow for either here.

Zotero RTF Shortcut

Zotero Pandoc Shortcut

Automate Rendering a Reference List or Bibliography

Depending on the complexity of your needs, this is where it can get tricky. If you're writing anything genuinely long form — a dissertation, thesis, or a book — then this is the last remaining task where it is useful to have access to a Mac, or PC if necessary. That doesn’t mean you need to own one. Workarounds exist to make this possible from an iPad.

The Simple Method

For the most simple version of this, Zotero can produce a bibliography online, but it’s not pretty. Fortunately, Shortcuts can retrieve a formatted reference list from the Zotero API. If you want to use the Cite as You Write shortcut from above, you can retrieve the reference list, or bibliography from the relevant collection with the following shortcut.

Zotero Bibliography Shortcut

Note, these workflows don’t know what references are in your document, there is no way to automate that via Shortcuts. They are by no means perfect, so proof your work carefully.

Run the Zotero RTF Scanner from an iPad (almost)

Should you wish to automate the process completely, you will need access to a desktop to scan your work through the Zotero RTF scanner. The good news about keeping your references in Zotero, being a web service you can make use of on demand computing. You don’t need to maintain your Zotero library in a local database, it remains in the cloud. That means you only need temporary access to a desktop for the sole purpose of running your work through Zotero. 4

Amazon Workstations

If you cannot access a desktop directly, there is always Amazon Workstations. It’s free to set one up, and you’ll only need it briefly. Be careful to choose an option available on the free tier though, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise when a bill arrives. The iPad app for Amazon Workstations is useable enough for this. You can manage your referencing on iPad with Zotero, then setup a workstation to run the finished project through the scanner.

Portable Apps Zotero

Often on campus it is easy enough to access a desktop, but installing software can be a problem.  For that situation, the unofficial Portable Apps version of Zotero should do the trick.  Install it on a portable drive and run it on demand. To be honest, I like this option more than using AWS.

Beyond Referencing on iPad

Zotero’s Web API with the Shortcuts app is presently ās good as it gets for referencing on iPad. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have tried everything else, nothing comes close where iOS is concerned. From its communal, open source development, to its stance on privacy, Zotero is an antidote to the proprietary systems of giant academic publishers. 5 I cannot speak highly enough of the Zotero service. If you can spring for it, I recommend upgrading the storage option for both the utility, and to support their work. US$20 will buy you 2GB for a year, which is plenty for PDF documents.

For Mac users, Zotero is not the only solution I can recommend. I have started testing the native macOS referencing solution, Bookends, recently. I can tell you, it is impressive. I will post a proper review at some point, but there is a free trial available. Both these solutions, Zotero and Bookends, offer and excellent alternative to EndNote, Mendely, and the other big commercial referencing solutions. But at this point, for academic writing on iOS, Zotero is the best option we have currently. Whether you use these workflows, or shortcuts as they are or adapt them to your needs, I hope you find them useful. If you need any help configuring them, don't be afraid to contact me via one of the methods to your left.

Happy writing.

 

 

  1. If you use an alternate browser, you can change the final action to open the results there.
  2. If you are using footnotes, I have a post in the works to cover that
  3. I have a follow up post that will cover using Pandoc on iOS. It includes a shortcut for extracting citekeys for the Better BibTeX Plugin
  4. Unfortunately, the RTF scanner is a plugin, so it isn’t available online or through the API.  
  5. EndNote once sued Zotero for having the audacity to offer users a means for transferring their data. Mendely is run by similar ghouls. 

Setapp: Mac App Subscription Service Adds Dropzone

Setapp Dropzone.png

Setapp, the mac app subscription service, has added another of my favourite utilities to their collection. I mentioned Dropzone in one of the earliest posts on this site, and it continues to be one of the handiest automation tools I have on my Mac. I use it every day.

Setapp mac app subscription
I use Dropzone as often as I use my Mac, to trigger automated tasks and more

At its most basic, Dropzone extends the drag and drop powers of your mac. It can do much more than that, using customisable actions that are bundled into ‘dropzones’ that act as triggers. It is once of those apps whose usefulness cannot be fully appreciated until it has been put to work. Which brings to me to the usefulness of Setapp more generally.

The Value In a Setapp Mac App Subscription

I have been meaning to do the math on this for a while, but it doesn't take much to recognise the value I get from Setapp. Looking at the growing list of apps I have installed from the service, it has become an integral part of the way I use my Mac. I have over forty apps installed from Setapp now 1 Many of the apps I use daily basis, or at least every time I use my iMac. Admittedly, I already own Dropzone, so it could be a stretch to include it on the list.

 

Others Mac apps, like Ulysses, Marked, Forklift, and Taskpaper have become critical to the way I run this site. Then there are the apps that hold my Mac together, like iStat Menus, Gemini and Clean My Mac. And, probably the most overlooked value of Setapp, having a subscription allows me to use apps I might otherwise hesitate to buy, for how little I use them. For example, I have been playing around with API requests lately, using Paw. For my amateur twiddling, I couldn’t justify the US$50 to buy that app outright. Setapp means I don’t have to.

It is a point worth contemplating. Take Dropzone, it might not be expensive, but it is the kind of utility you need to tinker with to get the most out of it. Trial versions never last long enough to gain a full appreciation of an app, and I for one never treat a trial version like I would a first class citizen. If anything, Setapp creates the opposite problem for the software tinkering procrastinators of the world.

Setapp Subscription for Education

Setapp mac app subscription
The growing collection of apps for study, research and writing, make Setapp ideal for education users and students

I have made this point before, yet it bears repeating. For a lot of people, the software necessary for studying at university — or if you call it college — is practically redundant once school’s out. Dedicated apps like Studies for organising your learning, the wonderfully designed lab notebook app Findings, or the power user mind mapping tool iThoughts X.

Education users are eligible for a 50% discount, so I’m paying US$49 a year for Setapp at the moment. Half of that covers Ulysses alone, and the rest would be easily accounted for when even a single one of these apps receives a paid upgrade.

I bang on about Setapp every chance I get. I don’t want it to go away. The service saves me being pecked to death by a dozens of separate subscriptions or paid upgrades. We are in shallow waters with the new app subscription situation. I fear some developers are getting it wrong with pricing,2 where it is working for others. This strikes me as a better way to do things. The collective aspect of it appeals, and with apps like Dropzone being added all the time, Setapp continues to get better and better.

If you want to check it out for yourself, you can download a trial for full access to the collection. Don’t for get to apply for the discount of you’re an education user.

Setapp | Mac App Collection

  1. It’s true I like to write on my iPad, however, I still make good use of my Mac.
  2. $40USD a year for a Pomodoro timer is ridiculous

iOS Automation, Shortcuts: Workflows for Study and Research

Ios Automation Workflow Shortcuts.png

For nerds wanting to automate their devices, iOS 12 is Christmas. This week's new version of iOS brings with it significant developments to user automation. There has never been a better time to get to grips with iOS automation. Between the new academic year in the northern hemisphere, and the release of Shortcuts, I figure now is a good time to share some workflows I have built specifically for academic work and study.  Among the good news is existing Workflow routines are fully compatible with the new Shortcuts app, so I can start sharing the workflows I have built up.

Academic Shortcuts: EZProxy Library Workflow

This first workflow is as about as basic as automation can get, and yet it is one of the best timesaving tricks I have set up. I use this shortcut every day to access the full pdf versions of articles I find via Google or DuckDuckGo.

Most university libraries have an EZ Proxy server that can be used to reroute a URL through the library. If you come across an article you want to access, instead of tediously searching for it again via your library, you can use this workflow to access it via EZProxy. When you install the workflow, it will ask for the EZProxy address for your university library, so search for first and have it copied to the clipboard before you install the workflow.

Download: EZProxy Workflow

Citation Scanner Workflow: Scan Barcodes for Formatted Citations

ios automation

I have a much longer post in the works to cover managing citations with Workflow shortcuts, so consider this a preview.

There are a lot of web services and APIs one can find to format citations, but sometimes you need something simple. This shortcut uses a handy little web service called Ottobib that can return formatted citations via URL from ISBN numbers. I have used it to setup my own book scanner. It takes the ISBN from the barcode, queries the Worldcat database, and returns a formatted citation of the book in your choice of style. Consider it a basic version of Citationsy.

Download: Citation Scanner Workflow

Docverter Workflow: Convert Documents on iOS with Pandoc

ios automation

For academic users, the real value in using Pandoc is in the wonderful citeproc filter that formats referencing. Unfortunately, Docverter doesn’t include that part of Pandoc. What it can do, however, is a fine job of converting markdown, or HTML documents into other file formats. 1

I recently highlighted the dual document feature of Notebooks, along with that app’s support for multiple file formats. One thing Notebooks can’t do is create docx files for Microsoft Word. As much as I would like to avoid Word altogether, that remains wishful thinking in academia. Not only can this workflow help with that problem, it will save you from trying one of those janky conversion apps on the app store. It is also worth mentioning the other wonderful text editors this opens up. Drafts 5 is the first that comes to mind.

Download: Docverter Workflow

If you find these workflows, or shortcuts — whatever we are calling them now — useful, keep an eye out for more posts on iOS automation.

  1. It can handle LaTeX, and a couple other formats too. I suspect if you’re using those formats you will have no trouble adapting the workflow to your needs

DEVONthink and Notebooks: Alternatives to Evernote

Alternatives To Evernote Logos

Rumours of Evernote’s demise come around ever so often, but the recent ones appear to have more to them than usual. It seems a bunch of senior staff are heading out the door. If privacy concerns, and proprietary database weren’t concern enough, the future of your data should be. I would be especially concerned for academic research. If you are looking for the alternatives to Evernote for Mac and iOS, I humbly submit a couple of options I have written about on this site, DEVONthink, and Notebooks. You may even find room in your workflow for both.

DEVONthink, the Power User’s Alternative to Evernote

I have written at length about DEVONthink for iOS, but DEVONthink's real power still lies on the Mac. In fact, it is one of the remaining reasons I still use macOS. There are rumours of a major overhaul to DEVONthink on the Mac. I certainly hope to see those rumours come to fruition. For all its wonderful power, the interface has aged. Nonetheless, beneath that interface you will find the most powerful software available for information management and research. The AI heuristics and advanced search are some of the best study and research tools you will find in any form.

If aesthetic reasons have stopped you using DEVONthink in the past, I would urge you to download a trial and see if you can’t get over that. I wish had earlier than I did.

OCR and Web Clipping with DEVONthink

I know many users come to rely on Evernote’s OCR and web clipper. Both of those abilities can be found in DEVONthink. 1 The OCR engine in DEVONthink Pro Office is as good as it gets. Between that, and the peerless AI engine you can see why DEVONthink has become the endpoint for all my research materials. The web clipper can clean a web page, and save multiple formats. It might be stripped back compared with the Evernote clipper, but it does an admirable job at capturing what you need. The best part is, it speaks Markdown.

Alternatives To Evernote Webclipper
The DEVONthink web clipper is a capable alternative to Evernote

As far as alternatives to Evernote go, DEVONthink is a significant upgrade. Not only is it smarter, but your data remains private and secure. Moreover, you have options for how you use DEVONthink. In short, where Evernote imperils your data, DEVONthink keeps it safe.

Migrating your data to DEVONthink is trivial, as it can connect to Evernote directly to pull everything across with a single click. What’s more, with the DEVONthink Education Discount you can buy DEVONthink Pro Office outright for the cost of one year of Evernote.

 Alternatives to Evernote
DEVONthink can import data directly from Evernote

If you happen to be an iOS only user, DEVONthink to Go is also an excellent app. And, with the help of Workflow migrating you data on an iPad is not as difficult as many would have you believe. I have even setup some workflow shortcuts to help with the process. See my post on migrating Evernote data.

Notebooks: A Plain Text Alternative to Evernote

 Alternatives to Evernote

In many ways, Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks App is the antithesis of Evernote. It avoids all the pitfalls of a web based, proprietary system by building a stack on plain text. Not only is Notebooks a clever app, it is lean and your data remains future proof. If you want to avoid ever falling into the Evernote trap again, I would give this a serious look.

I recently did a deep dive on Notebooks, but I'm still uncovering some of its tricks. I have just started putting the ability to extract tasks automatically to good use. Notebooks can be set to extract tasks from a line in any note, by nominating a special character or phrase to indicate a line as a task. In practice, this means I don’t need to interrupt my own work when I have something to follow up. I have set Notebooks to extract tasks from any line that begins with two asterisk, so while writing I simply type a new line with ** followed by whatever I need to be reminded of. 2 Like so,

** follow up on citations for Science of Logic

That's it, I'm done. Notebooks will now extract the task from the text, and set a reminder. This is ingenious. It also opens up all kinds of possibilities with Siri Shortcuts,  using Notebooks  Siri integration.

Mac and iOS users have options for alternatives to Evernote. Apple’s own Notes app has developed into a solid solution. It has everything an everyday user might need, right down to document scanning and shared notes. I can also understand why Bear has become so popular, the interface is a delight. At the same time, both of those apps are built on a database that ultimately obscures the notes themselves. 3 With Notebooks, you can avoid that problem altogether, and you get an app that is much better suited to an academic workflow. For more on Notebooks, see links to my recent posts below.

Notebooks Coverage

Note Taking Automation with Notebooks, Workflow etc

Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Elements of a Note Taking and Research Workflow

If you’re wondering how these apps might work together, it is straightforward enough. I keep all my current notes and project materials in Notebooks, but archive everything in DEVONthink. DEVONthink can mange note taking well enough, but it doesn’t have the greatest interface for composing notes — or for writing in general.

On the other hand, something DEVONthink excels at is indexing data. This means you don’t need to store data in a DEVONthink database to make use of its intelligence. Instead, you can index any folder, anywhere on your Mac. Because Notebooks stores data in native file formats, which are accessible directly from the file system, DEVONthink and Notebooks are very compatible.

As Notebooks files are stored in the native file system, I can easily keep my notebooks indexed and make use of DEVONthink’s search super powers. This works well for the simple fact that both these apps work with the files system, instead of against it. Believe it or not, this means I can even use my old favourite plain text utility, nvALT, alongside both these apps. I will leave that workflow, however, for another time.

What about handwriting? On iOS, I use GoodNotes for handwritten notes. And like everything else, those notes pass through Notebooks and eventually end up archived in DEVONthink.  While wither one of these apps is a wise investment, they play well together.  Notebooks is available on the App Store for both macOS and iOS, and DEVONthink is available directly.

DEVONthink Education Discount

Notebooks on the iOS App Store

Notebooks on the Mac App Store

  1. You will need the pro version for OCR
  2. You can set the task indicator to anything you like 
  3. I’m talking about Notebooks. But yes, I understand DEVONthink keeps material in a database. It doesn’t have to though.