Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academics

 The Appademic has 10 copies of Notebooks to Giveaway — see here for details  

Notebooks 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.

 

Unique Features in Notebooks For Students And Academics

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

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 few appps that can view and edit two documents at once

 

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
Note Taking App For Students And Academic

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
Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students

 

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

Notebooks 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
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.

Appademic Giveaway

If you want a chance to pick up a free copy of Notebooks, signup for the Appademic Mailing list below. If you’re a subscriber, there’s not need to signup again, you’re already in the draw. The draw will close on Friday the 24th of August.

 

 

  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.

Giveaway: Notebooks iOS for Writing and Research

best note taking app for study

I have spent more trying out note taking apps that I would like to admit. You could say I’m picky. Through all the trialing and testing, one app stands out for combining almost everything I want in a note taking app with a number of features I hadn’t even thought of. That app is Notebooks. The more I use it, the more I am convinced Notebooks is the best note taking app for study, research and academic work.

My enthusiasm for Notebooks is its own reward, so it’s a huge bonus to have that enthusiasm met with generosity. The developer of Notebooks, Alfons Schmid, is kindly offering readers of The Appademic the chance to pick up one of ten free copies of Notebooks for iOS.

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks has the ability to view and edit two documents at once

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notebook, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. I recently highlighted the way I use Notebooks’ task management, and URL scheme features to collect material, and organise reading lists. I have a more detailed review on the way, which will include more worklows that make use of Notebooks' unique features. In the meantime, if you are unfamiliar with the app here are some of the highlights.

  • Markdown support
  • Deep URL scheme automation
  • Internal linking for wiki notes or zettelkasten
  • Support for almost any document type you can think of
  • Private Wifi syncing, WebDAV or Dropbox
  • Future proofed by plain text and html
  • Document processor, ebook compiler and PDF converter
  • Task Management, including GTD contexts
  • Integration with OmniFocus, Things 3, Todoist, 2Do and more
  • TextExpander
  • Customisable keyboard
  • Customisable style sheets
  • PDF annotation and sketching
  • Voice memos

Win a Free Copy of Notebooks for iOS

Notebooks is a powerful tool with a clean, and slick interface. It is easily one of my favourite apps on the iPad. It is the best note taking app I have found for my own purposes.  If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the Appademic Mailing list below. If you are already a subscriber, you’re in the draw already. The draw will close on Friday 24th of August, and winners notified via email.  There are 10 copies to be won.

Subscribe to Enter the Draw

Focus Sounds: Rival Consoles Persona

Thoughtful Music for Concentration

music for concentration
Rival Consoles' 2018 album Persona provides a wonderfully nuanced and evocative atmosphere without being too distracting

For this edition of Focus Sounds I can’t go past another Erased Tapes artist, Despite to the connection with the previous recommendation, I couldn’t turn this one away. But, don’t let the label fool you into presuming this is more of the same. Erased Tapes’ specialty is defying genre, so this is an entirely different mood to Tag Eins Tag Zwei. The album in question is the recently released Persona, from Rival Consoles.

I know some folk prefer a relative sameness for a writing environment. I find that doesn’t work for me. Different tones are appropriate to the distinct kinds of writing I’m doing. Where certain moods need to be carried, or gently maintained, others might benefit from being interrupted. The nuances of cadence can maintain the pace, or even slow one down where necessary. Writing can be like that, and with academic work there also is the reading to consider.

Persona, the latest album from Ryan Lee West — aka Rival Consoles — is aptly reflective for kind of work I’m focused on right now. At the same time, it has the kind of insistent metre that encourages output. By West’s own admission, Persona is sonically diverse. If at times the soundscape is evocative, it isn’t overwhelmingly so. I find this characteristic of the best music for concentration. It can’t distract too much, but neither should it be utterly boring.

A criteria I stand by in selecting music for working, it has to merit listening to regardless. In other words, I want more than just background music. I’m not riding an elevator, I’m trying to create something I’m proud off. It helps to know I’m sharing the space with something thought provoking in itself, Persona is this kind of record. As the liner notes from Erased Tapes explain:

The title ‘Persona’ was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name, specifically a shot in the opening credits of a child reaching out to touch a woman’s face on a screen, which is shifting between one face and another. This powerful image struck Ryan and it inspired the album’s main theme — an exploration of the persona, the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us, the spaces in between; between states, people, light and dark, the inner persona and the outer persona.

Not all that long ago I was all but viscerally opposed to most electronic music. Mores the pity that it took me so long to come around and discover artists like Rival Consoles. I can’t presume to offer writing advice; not for the battle I undertake to get things done. What I can do is pass along anything that helps. Persona falls squarely in that category.

As ever, you will find the album everywhere you would expect.

Apple Music

Amazon

Bandcamp

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

Notebooks Among the Excellent Apps in Back to School Sale

best productivity apps for iPhone iPad and Mac

The annual back to school sale from European Independent developer collective, 12★apps, has a few days to run. If you haven’t heard of 12 Star Apps, it is a promotional initiative by a group of European developers who make some of the best productivity apps for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. They run promotions at specific times throughout the year where each developer offers a discount of up to 80% for their apps.

The collection includes some of the best apps I know of for study or research. Among the highlights are the excellent research notebook Findings, flash card revision app Studies, and what I consider to be the best digital mind-mapping tool, MindNode. You can also pick up a copy of Prizmo, which has long been one of the most powerful and accurate OCR scanners on any platform, including iOS where Prizmo Go is the tool I use to automate capture of book sections and other research material.

All of the above are excellent apps, with generous discounts, but the title in the collection that truly stands out for me is the wonderful note-taking, document management and productivity powerhouse Notebooks, by Alfons Schmid. I have written about Notebooks a couple of times on this site, and I have some more content on the way. I recently posted a workflow for creating reading lists on iOS, and after corresponding with the developer I am excited for the app’s future.

During the Back to School Promotion, Notebooks is available from the App Store on iOS for $US3.99, and macOS for $US8.99. Trust me, these are absurdly low prices for such a powerful piece of software. If you do decide to pick up a copy, check back here over the next couple of weeks as I post a few tips on how to get the most out of it.

The list of other apps and their respective discounts can be found at the 12★apps site.

Focus Sounds: Instrumental Music for Focus

Read enough of my posts and you might start to pick up on the little jokes I make here and there about attention madness. Music is always helpful, but finding the right music can be part of the problem if you’re not careful. This is one area I get value from Apple Music. Between curated playlists,  and curious browsing I have discovered, and rediscovered some of my favourite music for concentrating. With that in mind, this is the first of what I hope will be regular posts recommending Artists, albums and playlists of instrumental music for focus, and concentration.

Instrumental Music for Focus

Instrumental Music For Focus
Nils Frahm and F.S Blumm's neo classical minimalism is perfect concentration music.

This week’s album is Tag Eins Tag Zwei By F.S. Blumm, Nils Frahm, a collaboration between two brilliant instrumentalists. Nils Frahm is one of my favourite contemporary composers, and F. S. Blumm is the pseudonym of german artist Frank Schültge, a musician worth exploring in his own right. This is a collectors item on vinyl, with only 450 copies ever pressed. The album is a kind of minimalist conversation between Frahm's singular piano style, and subtle responsive guitar from F.S Blumm.  It almost does it a disservice to consider this background music, at the same time it has the kind of cadence and space I find perfect for writing. You will know immediately if it's for you.

You can pick it up on Apple MusicSpotify, or Amazon. Or head over the Sonic Peices Bandcamp page if you want to buy it outright, or explore more of their music.

 

A Brief Note On Apple Music vs Spotify

Initially, it was touch and whether I would hang on to Apple Music after the initial 3 month trial. However, the 50% student discount was enough to persuade me, and it also means I can hang on to years of meticulously maintained iTunes Match data. It is fair the say the service has improved significantly. That said, I also have access to Spotify via my mobile carrier, and in my experience it still has a superior discovery algorithm.  The distinction I would make between the two services is this. If you want  curated discovery, and you have mainly Apple devices,  then use Apple Music. If you want more automated discovery, and you want to connect your music beyond the Apple sandbox, go with Spotify. Either way, if you're a student you get a discount on both.

Happy reading and writing.

 

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

Affinity Designer Release: Professional Graphic Design for iPad

Professional Graphic Design for iPad

One of the best design tools you will find on macOS has just been released on iPad. When the iPad Pro line was updated last year, one of the most significant software developments was the excellent desktop class photo editing app Affinity Photo.  It's been on my list of best apps ever since. The follow up to that release, Serif's  Affinity Designer means professional graphic design for iPad. If you're looking for a desktop class design app for iPad this is worth a look.

Design tools rarely make sense to me on the desktop. I have never quite grokked Adobe’s PhotoShop, or Illustrator. For my modest design needs I muddle through best as I can, but I undoubtedly prefer more accessible software. Flying Meat’s Acorn opened my eyes to powerful simplicity, then being able to move between devices made Pixelmator my app of choice. The recently released Pixelmator Pro is a worthy addition to any design toolset, but it has left the iPad version languishing behind . The lack of relative feature parity betweens apps on Mac and iPad remains a stubborn barrier to realisation of the tablet’s potential.  We still see a lot of minimal, companion style versions of Mac apps on iOS. With the direction of development, ironically, Apple's forthcoming cross platform UIKit Framework 1 says more about macOS at this point.

Something that is clear, however, is the iPad simply makes sense as a design interface. Direct and tactile manipulation of images removes a layer of abstraction and — at least in my experience — makes it easier to learn the required interactions. At the moment, Serif is relatively unusual among developers for their treatment of iOS as a serious professional platform equal to macOS.  In the design space, the Affinity is suite is currently peerless as a result.

Professional Graphic Design for iPad

Professional Graphic Design for iPad

Designer is a whole new level for graphic design software on iOS. From sketching, to fully realised vector tools and UI design, with everything in between. Even with modest needs, having access to such an intuitive professional app makes learning faster and more enjoyable. Graphic design software is traditionally  expensive too, and while some of the apps I have mentioned buck that trend, both Affinity apps are significantly cheaper on iOS.  Even more so while the 30% discount is available for Affinity Designer's release. This might be an aspirational purchase for me, but for somebody with actual design skills wanting to do professional work on iOS, it's a no brainer.

Affinity Designer is available on the US $13.99

  1. Marzipan

Rise of the machines: has technology evolved beyond our control? | The Guardian

This recent article from James Bridle does more to recommend him as one of the more insightful, and interesting writers on Technology at the moment. I linked to a post he wrote about disturbing algorithmic content on Youtube. I'm glad to a writer like this finding a platform to ask important questions in an accessible way.

Something strange has happened to our way of thinking – and as a result, even stranger things are happening to the world. We have come to believe that everything is computable and can be resolved by the application of new technologies. But these technologies are not neutral facilitators: they embody our politics and biases, they extend beyond the boundaries of nations and legal jurisdictions and increasingly exceed the understanding of even their creators. As a result, we understand less and less about the world as these powerful technologies assume more control over our everyday lives.

Between technological evangelism, and equally religious devotees, the more important dissenting voices and thoughtful critique become. Which is why I recommend picking up a copy of Bridle forthcoming book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future

Find it on Book Depository or Amazon

Automatically Mount External Drive to Clone a Mac

Simple Mac Automator Example

I know some people find automation daunting. Fortunately, some of the most effective Mac automations are simple enough to get anybody started. The native MacOS automator app alone can save you from boring and repetitive tasks. Better still, Mac automation can save you from having to remember those tasks. A good example of a simple automation is how to automatically mount an external drive to create a bootable clone for backup.

Backup Strategies for macOS

The past 18 months we’ve had some hardware failures that took me from feeling over-prepared to being relieved I have this all set up. A solid backup and recovery scheme is table stakes for most nerds, but in my experience the same can’t be said of academics. To say nothing of the way most students wing it with their data. I’ve lost count of the horror stories I’m privy to. Undergrads losing devices, or having them pinched. Graduate students having to ask supervisors for a copy of their own thesis, or recompile dissertations from draft fragments. My backup strategy looks like this:

  1. Regular time machine backups to an external drive on my Synology rt2600ac router. Setting up Time Machine to backup wirelessly is an overlooked example of Mac automation
  2. Continuous offsite backup of everything to Backblaze. For US$5 a month, I have almost 6 terabytes of files backed up.
  3. An automated, bootable clone of my entire system updated every night using SuperDuper!

If you have a solid backup strategy, regularly creating bootable clones of your whole system drive is no doubt part of it. If it isn’t, it should be.

Automatically Mounting an External Hard Drive

One of the problems with automating the creation of a bootable clone is the drive must be mounted. That might seem like I’m stating the bleeding obvious, or overlooking an obvious solution, but keeping a clone of your system mounted at all times can create all kinds of problems. Once the drive is indexed, you can have issues with document conflicts, messed up caching, and all manner of application weirdness. It doesn’t take much to launch the wrong version of an app, then you’re in a world of hurt.

The answer, of course, is to automatically mount the drive before backup, and eject it afterwards. But how to do that? Ejecting the drive is the easy part. Any decent backup, cloning app will have this functionality. This includes apps like Chronosync, Carbon Copy Cloner, or if you’re a Setapp user, Backup Pro. My favourite drive cloning software for Mac is Super Duper! for its elegant simplicity. Using Super Duper! to automatically eject the drive looks like this:

Automatically Mount External Drive
Any decent macOS backup utility will have the ability to automatically eject an external drive aftre creating a bootable clone

But, we are putting the cart in front of the horse. The question remains, how to automatically mount the drive. Thankfully, that is also simple. We can use a single command in AppleScript.

One Line AppleScript  to Automatically Mount External Drive

A simple one line AppleScript to make a Mac automatically mount an external drive looks like this:

do shell script "diskutil mount clone"

To make it work you either name your drive ‘clone, or edit the script where it says ’clone’ with the name of the target volume. All that’s left is how to trigger the script. The more you start to peel back the layers on Mac automation, the more you realise how many different options there are. Here are three ways to run the above AppleScript, and automate the mounting of an external drive.

Automatically Mount External Drive with Automator Calendar Alarm

 

The first option is to use Automator, the native Mac app. Automator can utilise the Mac Calendar app to trigger simple MacOS automations with an alarm. Here's how to setup an Automator Calendar Alarm.

  1. Open Automator from your applications
  2. Choose Calendar Alarm
  3. Search the actions on the left for ‘Run AppleScript’ and drag that action across to the workflow editor on the right — or double click
  4. Clear the window and past our single line of AppleScript into the ‘Run AppleScript’ window. Here is that line of code again:

do shell script "diskutil mount clone"

Simple macOS automation using one line of AppleScript
  1. Click on the little hammer icon to compile the script, then save the workflow and give it a name.
  2. As soon as you save the workflow it will open the calendar app with a new entry. All you need to do is move it, and schedule it like you would any other event.
Automatically Mount External Drive
Automator can trigger an alarm in the native Calendar App to automatically mount an external drive
  1. You’re done, have yourself a Pixie Caramel

There is amore convoluted way to do this from the calendar itself, but the result is the same. I recommend building the workflow yourself, simple as it is. But if you’d rather, you can download a copy here

Automatically Mount External Drive with Keyboard Maestro

I would be happy using the Automator workflow above if I didn’t already use Keyboard Maestro. Setting up Keyboard Maestro to trigger the script is easier still. It’s not the kind of thing I suggest you purchase the app for, but the kind of simple use case it is often overlooked for.

 

Keyboard Maestro Macro

Automate AppleScript Launch with Lingon X

Another option is to use Lingon X, a powerful automation utility that can launch practically anything. Lingon X is ideal for a job like this. To use Lingon you ned to save the script itself first.

  1. Launch the native Mac Script Editor from Utiities
  2. Paste the AppleScript into the editor do shell script "diskutil mount clone"
  3. Compile with the little hammer
  4. Save the script
  5. Schedule a new job in Lingon X to run the script before your clone is set to run.
simple macOS automation
Lingon X is a powerful utility for creating simple macOS automation

There is also an App Store version for Lingon available.

Choosing an External Hard Drive for Bootable Clone

The last word on this is doubled edged. You should of course try to be savvy about the external hard drives you buy, but this workflow wouldn’t exist if you could be certain you’ll never buy a lemon. I mentioned in my post on replacing the Apple Airport Extreme that Backblaze keep excellent drive statistics. Understandably, it doesn’t include the kind of portable external hard drives you will likely use for this kind of automated clone backup. I feel well covered with my setup, but I know plenty of people who like to rotate the drives and keep one offsite. Either way, I have always found Seagate Expansion drives to be fast, and reliable. Connected to a Hub, and stashed under the desk to avoid more clutter.