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:

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

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. 

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.

Note Taking Automation with Notebooks, Workflow etc

Ipad Note Taking Automation

This is the second of a two part feature on Notebooks, for part one see here

Notebooks Part II: URL schemes and iOS Note Taking Automation

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notes taking app, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. Where the previous post outlined some of the feature highlights, this one has some examples for how to use the Notebooks URL scheme with Workflow, Drafts 5 and Launch Center Pro.

URL Scheme Automation Workflows

Automation on iOS is finally growing up. The impending release of iOS 12 will make user automation more accessible than ever, while apps such as Drafts 5, Pythonista, and the Omni Group’s suite include powerful scripting tools. At the same time, URL schemes remain the enduring staple of iOS automation. Any serious productivity app will include a URL scheme; they provide an ideal entry point for automation.

Notebooks comes loaded with a number of helpful URLs. It could potentially do more, but the bases are covered for common workflows. The scheme is both simple to understand, and well documented. I have various workflows, and launchers setup using the Notebooks sche

Here are some examples for download. Some will work as they are, while some require minor tweaks for your own purposes.

Workflow Shortcuts

You can set these up as action extensions, or invoke them from a widget in the today view. If you hold any concerns about workflows in the new Shortcuts app. Fear not, the following workflows will still be valid when iOS 12 comes along, and Notebooks includes support for Siri 

Reading List Workflow

This simple workflow was published in a post with a couple of other tips recently. To summarise, it is a way of archiving links, articles, or PDFs into a Notebooks task list. You can do the same thing using drag and drop. Check out that earlier post for more, or download the workflow below.

Download: Reading List Workflow

nb. To make this work you either need to create a Notebook called Reading List and set it as a task list in Notebooks. Or, you need to adjust URL in workflow to include a notebook of your own. This workflow can also be adjusted to choose from multiple task list. Again, you will need to change the list to suit your own needs

Download: Notebooks Add to List

Notebooks Markdown Web Clipper

How to take web clippings is usually the first question from Evernote users. There are a couple of ways to address that. If you simply want to import web pages, then Notebooks is thoroughly integrated with iOS system APIs. The Safari extension works perfectly. The same is true of the Notebooks Bookmarklet, which can also be used in third-party browsers. Notebooks settings can also be tweaked for the grab function to save either web archives, or flat HTML files.

If you’re only grabbing text, and you want something cleaner, I have created a Notebooks MD Clipper using Brett’s Marky Markdown API. This approach also has the advantage of being more judicious. As excellent as the Evernote web clipper is, I find it to be a blunt tool that makes it too easy to fill up a database with nonsense. Nowadays I keep my bookmarks at Pinboard.in, and DEVONthink, and only import what I need into Notebooks. This workflow is ideal for the job.

Download:  Notebooks MD Clipper Workflow

Notebooks Wiki Style Links

Notebooks internal linking makes for detailed internal note structure. I have done something similar with DEVONthink in the past, but it works particularly well in Notebooks. The first step is to copy the internal link of the note you want to link to, you do that by swiping gently left on the appropriate title in document tree. From there you can use the workflow in one of two ways, either run it from the today view widget, or type and select your anchor text to run the workflow inline — see the screenshot below.

Ios Note Taking Automation Internal Linking
Swiping left on the document tree, you can copy an internal link to the clipboard.
Ios Note Taking Automation Inline Workflow
To run this workflow inline, select the text you want to to use for the link and hit share. You can also run it from the widget in the today view

Download Workflow:  Notebooks Wiki Links

Notebooks Launcher

If you have a lot of workflows accumulating, it can be useful to setup a launcher to act as a kind of folder. As you will see below, I prefer to use Launch Center Pro myself. But for anyone wanting to keep it all in one app, this can help organise things. You can also use an app like Launcher or Magic Launcher, both are very good at what they do.

Download: Notebooks Launcher Workflow

Launch Center Pro

Ios Note Taking Automation
Setup launchers for common workflows in Launch Center Pro

It seems strange to suggest it, but Launch Center Pro (LCP) is something of a forgotten entity these days. You don’t hear much about it in the age of Workflow. Yet it remains an incredibly useful tool, and has always been an effective way to learn URL scheme automation. Even more useful is the integration with Textexpander. Snippets can be expanded in URLs directly, or via your abbreviations in a prompt. For example, I have a launcher setup to search my notes, along with numerous abbreviations for common names and subjects in my thesis. The launcher presents a search window, where I can type an abbreviation to quickly find notes. I have another that adds a new note, and uses Textexpander to set the current date as title.

Download Launch Center Pro actions:

Append to Notes — This launcher presents a list of pre-existing notes to append text to. To make it work you will need to edit the URL to include the names of your own notes.

Notebooks Search — Presents a search prompt

Add New Note with Date — Adds a new note with the current date as title. Requires Textexpander

Drafts 5 Actions

If you’re a Drafts 5 user, the Notebooks URL scheme makes it simple to setup your own Drafts Actions. If you’re just getting started, I have uploaded some actions to the Drafts 5 Action Directory:

Drafts 5: Notebooks Select — To use this for your own purposes, you will need to change the button prompts in the first step to include titles for your own notes.

Drafts 5: Add New Note to Notebooks — Adds a new note to your default notebook with the first line as title, and the body of the draft as the note. This will work without changes.

Wish List

As you can see, the Notebooks URL scheme includes everything you need to built automation into your common note taking workflows. It is not quite as deep as the URL scheme you find in Bear, or Ulysses. To be fair, I can’t see much use for automating visual elements like fonts and theme changes, but I would like to see a few things added.

Adding support for the x-callback protocol would open Notebooks up to bidirectional automation. At present the URL scheme is focused inward. If Notebooks were able to return data via URL, it would allow users to pull data out for all kinds of inventions. There are no doubt more pressing features on the road map, but putting these things out there is how we see our favourite apps improve over time.

 

Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academics

* This is part one of a two part feature on Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app.  Part two covers automation using the Notebooks URL Scheme

Unique Features in Notebooks App For Students And Academics

Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app has been on my list of essential apps since I started this site. I’ve since written about it a number of times, and included it among the highlights of last year.  I consider it one of the best note taking apps for iPad,  especially for students and academics.  The combination of writing and organisational tools make Notebooks uniquely suited to research. It has features you won't find in other note taking apps.  The following highlights some of the functionality in Notebooks that make it so useful.  1 For expediency sake I have broken this in two parts, with the first covering features suited to academic workflows, and a followup post covering automating Notebooks with Workflow and Drafts 5.

I recently highlighted the way I use the task management feature of Notebooks, along with its URL scheme to organise reading lists. Notebooks has numerous other features suited to academic work,  here are some of the highlights.

Dual Document Viewer

The minimalism of the iOS operating system is one of the iPad’s strengths. Whether by design, or by accident it encourages focused work. However, from time to time it can lead you to a dead end. One such problem is the inability to run multiple instances of any given app. In practice that usually means finding a workaround for a common research and writing workflow. I’m talking about viewing and editing two discreet documents at the same time.

The ability to view two documents concurrently is often necessary for academic work. Studying the contents of one document for comparison or analysis, while writing in another. Incorporating comments and feedback, or simple proofing. If you do any serious research based writing, eventually you will want a solution for this. This has become a notorious pain point on the iPad that very few apps address. Multitasking has soothed the pain somewhat. Opening documents in two different apps has become the de facto workaround, but you shouldn’t need to.

 

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks is one of only few apps available on iPad that can view and edit two documents at the same time

 

Notebooks has an elegant solution via the 2up button. A swipe gesture on any given file from the document tree will open a second document in split screen. Even more useful is the long list of document types supported, including plain text documents, Markdown, PDF, iWork, Office, RTF and HTML documents as well as images, movies, web archives or email messages. Scrivener is the only other app I know of that does this, from experience Notebooks does a better job by affording both documents equal screen real estate. 2

Customisable Keyboard Navigation

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academic

Notebooks has extensive keyboard shortcuts for everything from document creation and navigation, to time stamping and revealing word counts. I recently heard it suggested one of the qualifiers for a professional app on iPad is keyboard control. Notebooks has this covered, and then some. The pro touch for me is the ability to edit your own keys in the iOS shortcuts bar. Keys can be edited to insert practically anything, including a special function that adds whitespace where the cursor will land. Any matched punctuation pair can be setup using the same function.

 

Note Taking App For Students And Academic
Notebooks comes with predefined sets of keyboard shortcuts, and users can define their own custom keys

This is one of those little touches that are more useful that you even realise at first. For example, I use standard Biblatex citation keys for use with Zotero, so I setup a shortcut key that places an @ symbol between square brackets, using an ellipsis 3 in the middle. Tapping the key types the characters, while placing the cursor in the middle. I can then type my memorised key to signify the text I am working with. The keyboard shortcut looks like this: [@…]. I have further keys set for markup with various HTML tags. I could go on, the keyboard functionality extends much further than this.

Audio and Video Recordings

Audio notes are huge if you’re studying or researching. Whether its lectures, or dictated memos 4, cataloguing them in your general notebook gives them a frame of reference. If you use a separate app for recording audio, the files are often stored without context. If you’re conscientious about naming files this can work, but nothing is more irritating than listening through the start of multiple recordings to find what you need. The same is true of video, which is rightly becoming a more recognised reference material.

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students
Notebooks can display visual files in its dual document viewer, making it possible to review recording while taking notes

 

Note taking from Audio Visual material is another way to make good use of Notebooks dual document support. Invoking the spit view is not limited to text, so reviewing material while taking notes can be done without needing to open another app.

Structure Content with Contexts and Smart Books

Something that drew me immediately to Notebooks was the flexibility for organising data. There are powerful tools for creating structure without locking users into any predetermined method. The notebook metaphor can be maintained or subverted if you want to use the app as a file manager.

Contexts are a concept taken from the popular GTD method for organisation. I’m not big on the idea of totalising one’s life as a productivity machine, but the idea of contexts can provide a useful way to delineate different areas of work. In practice contexts are uniquely useful for structuring notes and other content. When used with Notebooks smart lists, contexts can provide the basis for compiling a finished project.

Document Processor and Compiler:

Notebooks can process text in a number of ways. Individual texts, and books can form the basis of sections for much larger documents. I have extolled the virtues of plain text enough on this site, but it bares repeating. Plain text is future proof, adaptable and resilient. The underlying engine of Notebooks is built on these foundations.

The plain text philosophy means Notebooks uses HTML for formatting, so with a little CSS, users can create custom styles from which Notebooks can compile PDF documents and ebooks. If that sounds difficult, it’s really not. It comes with a selection of style sheets to get you started, including one with MathJax support. 5 Using HTML means granular control over the finished product,

There is also a kind of neat symmetry here for anyone who knows the history HTML. The original Hypertext Markup Language was built for exactly this reason, as a standard for sharing research documents. This appeals to me as both an academic, and an unashamed geek.

PDF Annotations

The Notebooks app has the popular PSPDFKit framework available for PDF reading and annotation. This is the same framework used by Evernote, and DEVONthink, and includes thorough pencil support. On top of the deep annotation capabilities, the PSPDFkit framework provides nice page turning animations that give the app a more natural feel when working with PDF documents.

This particular feature s available via an in-app purchase, which like the app itself is inexpensive. The PDF viewer costs US$4.49. 6

Bonus Features

Windows version

This might not seem a big deal for iOS and Mac users, but Windows is everywhere. Apple users tend to forget this. Microsoft devices have improved dramatically recently, and there are plenty of other reasons for cross pollinating platforms.

Private Wifi Syncing and WebDAV support

I would like to see Notebooks add iCloud, and support for the iOS Files App, but the existing syncing options work well. Particularly pleasing is the consideration for privacy coded into the app via the Wifi option. If you have good reason for avoiding Dropbox, syncing can be managed across a local network. WebDAV support means Notebooks can also be synced via Synology and other private cloud solutions.

The Question of Handwriting

Handwriting Companion For Notebooks App
Until Notebooks has handwriting support, GoodNotes' on the fly OCR and excellent drag and drop support make it the ideal handwriting companion

Devices like the iPad Pro are finally delivering on the long promise of matching the cognitive advantages of handwriting to digital convenience. At the same time, where handwriting recognition and inking engines have improved out of sight, the apps that deliver these tools can be limited. As such, I have come to think of handwriting apps as an interface for capturing notes. Notes ultimately end up elsewhere, in Notebooks, DEVONthink, or Keep-It.

I have flipped between Notability, MyScript Nebo, and GoodNotes for handwriting. Nebo unquestionably has the best handwriting recognition, but the app hasn’t had much attention 7. Notability is a good self contained app if you can work with its limitations. However, I have returned to GoodNotes since it started generating searchable notes on the fly. Between the now instant OCR, and one of the best drag and drop implementations, GoodNotes is currently my favourite handwriting companion for Notebooks. Once a note is written, I open Notebooks and drag it from GoodNotes in slide over. The notes are preserved perfectly with the searchable layer.

Handwriting is the most obvious missing feature of Notebooks at present, but it’s likely to be added in a future version. If and when that happens, this already excellent tool will become a bonafide killer app. Until then, I still recommend it as a better place to store handwritten notes, and GoodNotes has the most compatible feature set right now.

Final Remarks

I say final, there is another post following with Workflow and url scheme automation. Despite this relatively lengthy post, there remains a lot I haven’t covered. Nonetheless, I believe these highlights make Notebooks, in my opinion, the best general purpose note taking app on iPad for academic use. There is room for improvement, no doubt. I expect that handwriting will arrive at some point, and while the hooks are already deep in iOS further integration

I have a final superficial qualifier. If I am going to spend any amount of time working in an app, I want it to look good. No problems here, the understated minimalism and use of whitespace make Notebooks a handsome app.

 

 

  1. The scope of the article covers iOS. However, Notebooks is cross platform, with excellent versions on macOS and Windows.
  2. Liquid Text has function for working with two documents, but it work vertically. Besides, Liquid Text is a world unto itself, so a subject for another time,
  3. As opposed to dictating notes to text
  4. If you know what MathJax is, chances are you have no problem with editing a few lines of HTML
  5. I’ll be honest, I wish the app cost more since I have come to reply on it. Given what it can do, I feel it is seriously under priced.
  6. It seems to get more buggy as iOS is incrementally updated.

Private and Secure File Transfer with Dropshare

Send Large Files Secure

On Mac Geek Gab recently a listener was looking for a secure solution for transferring files. The question was how to send files securely without the need for the recipient to install anything at their end. Although between the show and geek community, there were some great solutions, I thought I would share my own here. If I ever need quick and easy file sharing, particularly to send large files, I use Dropshare with Backblaze B2 for storage. For extra security, Dropshare can create password protected URLs to protect your file transfers.

Using DropShare to Send Large Files

Dropshare is essentially an open alternative to CloudApp or Droplr. The idea is a quick and easy method to bypass email for transferring files. To risk stating the obvious, email has never been an ideal for transporting anything other small files. Even allowing for limited file size, there are too many moving parts to ensure it is secure, and it can be slow and unreliable. Most people get around this with more generic cloud storage, like Dropbox, but using a purpose built solution is faster and more convenient. File transfer services were built from the need for fast sharing of image files and videos direct from the desktop, and have evolved from there.

 

The crucial difference between CloudApp or Droplr, and Dropshare, is where your files are stored. Like the first two, Dropshare has its own cloud service 1, but not only does it support numerous other connections, but users can setup multiple locations to choose between. That means rather than paying a monthly fee and dealing with usage caps and so on, you can buy the app outright and set it up how you like. Supported connections include Rackspace, Azure, Amazon S3, Google Drive, or any custom S3-API connection, which means using Digital Ocean and others. You can even set it up to use your Synology NAS, or to use SCP over SSH.

Then there is the connection I’m pushing, Backblaze B2. Backblaze gives you 10Gb of B2 storage for free. Not only is that more than enough storage for my needs, but I already use Backblaze for personal backup. Enabling B2 storage requires a tick box in one’s user account, and setting up storage containers is dead easy. In. short, its secure, free and easy. 2

Private and Secure File Transfer with Dropshare

With Dropshare, the workflow is literally drag and drop to have an SSL link attached to your clipboard. If you want further security, you can create an access-restricted URL that adds a password and expiry date to the link. You can even add link tracking, and Dropshare can randomise the file name if you don’t trust yourself to name your transfers carefully 3. You can do similar things with Dropbox and other cloud services, but that almost always requires a paid account.

The way link privacy works is Dropshare acts as a proxy, so the actual URL for the file isn’t revealed. There are a couple of things to be aware of here, first this means the file will pass through a Dropshare server to be downloaded. Dropshare doesn’t save the files or keep any logs, but you are still trusting a third party. Second, this shouldn’t be confused with encrypting files. If you have truly sensitive material you want to send, you need to encrypt the files separately. For a simple solution, an app like MacPaw’s free Encrypto can do that for you.

A Host of Other Cool Features

If a simple customisable, and private workflow isn’t enough, Dropshare has a number of other nice features. Like CloudApp and Droplr, there are tools for capturing screenshots and video on the fly. You can do the same with text by composing a note directly, or better still use the builtin Markdown translator to post an HTML document that can be opened in the browser from the link itself. Setup a custom landing page, shorten URLs, or mirror an iOS device. It even has a command line tool. The list goes on.

Where to Get DropShare

Dropshare is yet another gem that comes with a Setapp subscription, or you can pick it up direct for 24,99€. An full featured iOS version is also available.

  1. Based in Germany, a decent choice given Germany’s privacy laws
  2. The one caveat is B2 limits downloads to 1Gb per day. Anything over that will cost the princly sum of $0.01 per GB. That’s right, one cent.
  3. The file name is revealed even in a restricted link

Quick Fix: Mount Encrypted APFS Drive with AppleScript

automatically unlock an APFS volume with AppleScript

To supplement last week’s post on automatically mounting an external drive to create a clone, here is a quick tip for doing the same thing with an encrypted APFS volume. Ideally, you should be encrypting your backups. If you’re running macOS 10.13 High Sierra, or the impending macOS Mojave, then you will be cloning your system to an APFS volume. If that’s the case, you’ll need to no how to automatically unlock APFS volume with AppleScript.

Automatically unlock APFS volume with AppleScript

There is a little more work involved here, but none of it difficult. The file system might be new, but diskutil is still the command line program doing all the work managing volumes. There is simply a couple more commands involved. This assumes you have already encrypted the drive with Disk Utility.

To mount, or rather unlock an encrypted APFS volume with AppleScript, we need the following information:

  • APFS volume ID
  • Cryptographic user ID
  • The encryption password

The password is the same one you used when you formatted the drive. Here is how to get the other two pieces of the puzzle.

  1. Find the APFS volume ID for your clone drive. You can see this information clearly in Disk Utility. For every volume listed there is a table of information, the device field has what you are looking for. It is some variation of disk1s1. Or if you prefer, with the drive already mounted you can run a terminal command to have the information of all your drives listed, like so:

diskutil apfs list

That command will take a moment, then print a whole lot of information to screen like below. Look for volume you intend to clone your system to and note down the APFS Volume Disk.

Automatically Unlock Apfs Volume With Applescript
You can find the APFS volume ID in a couple of places, if you know where to look
  1. Once you have the volume ID.  In the terminal run the following command (replace ‘apfs_volume_id’ with your disk)

diskutil apfs listcryptousers /dev/apfs_volume_id

You will get something that looks like this:

+-- B4BA200D-B0B7-4AB2-A48C-BDE9FFA7E3BA
	Type: Disk User
	Hint: 1pw

That long alphanumeric code is the Cryptographic user. Copy that code and you have everything you need to make your AppleScript work.

  1. Create the AppleScript to automatically mount your encrypted APFS volume. The script looks like this:
do shell script "diskutil apfs unlockVolume [name_of_your_drive] -user B4BA200D-B0B7-4AB2-A48C-BDE9FFA7E3BA -passphrase [enter your passphrase here]" 

Naturally, you will enter the name of your drive, and replace the user code with the one you copied above. Make sure you remove the square brackets.

  1. Find a way to launch the script when you need it. There are a bunch of options in my previous post. My preferred option is currently Keyboard Maestro, but an Automator Calendar Alarm, or Lingon X work just as well.

Congratulations, you can automatically unlock an APFS volume with AppleScript.

 

Photo by Patrick Lindenberg on Unsplash

Creating Smart Reading Lists on iOS with Notebooks

Ios Workflow Notebooks Tasklist Reading

If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated.  If you're looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.

If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.

Notebooks Reading List Workflow

Ios Workflow Notebooks Reading List
The Notebooks URL scheme is simple to use, and does a great job of importing multiple data types

This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.

It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.

You can download the workflow here

Notebooks Drag and Drop

Notebooks Best Note Taking Ipad
Multitasking with drag and drop makes collecting articles trivial

The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.

Best note taking apps for college
Using a shelf app like Gladys gives you a chance to triage material before it is adding to the list

Among the Best Note Taking Apps

If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it's not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.

If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.

  1. I’m joking, you beautiful nerd you.