How to turn any Website into a Native Mac App

With so many of the tools we use nowadays built upon web services, you can end up working in a confusing array of browser windows, and endless tabs. This can get pretty frustrating. Luckily, if you happen to have a preference for stand-alone apps, there are a couple of simple solutions that allow you to turn any website into exactly that. What you end up with are essentially simple web wrappers, in effect single use browser sessions. [1]

Fluid Native Macos App
Fluid will create an application specific web browser for any website.

Of the two solutions I know, the first and easier option is to pick up an app called Fluid, for US$5. Using the app is simple, you enter the URL of the web service in question, give the app a name and you’re away. Fluid has some rudimentary settings you can tweak from within the single-use browser it creates, but there is only one that most people will care about. If you are creating a Fluid App for a web service, and you want to keep yourself logged in to that website, then you will need to enable cookies in the security settings.

The second way to do this is to use a clever little utility called Nativefier. Not everyone will feel quite as comfortable with this option as it requires you to use the terminal, but it is still pretty simple in the end. You will need to have Node.js installed, which can be installed with the Node Installer or with the Homebrew package manager if you are that deep in the weeds. Once you have Node, then it is a simple matter of using a couple of vefry basic terminal commands. The first is to install the Nativefier app itself, and the second is to have it build your stand-alone app. I believe anybody can handle entering a couple of simple commands that look like this:

npm install nativefier -g

nativefier --name "App Name" "http://example.com"

 

 

Website To Native Mac App
Rather than running endless browser tabs with web apps, Nativefier will build a standalone app from any website.

That really is all it takes. The result with Nativefier is a clean, and responsive stand-alone app. As far as choosing between the two options, it depends both on what you want to use the app for, and whether or not you are comfortable running a command in the terminal [2]. Myself, I use fluid for running this website on Squarespace, because I want a stand-alone app, but I need the tabs that a browser instance gives me. On the other hand, I much prefer Nativefier for apps that don’t require tabs.


  1. Which is exactly what you are getting with most desktop apps for web services, you are just compiling it yourself.  ↩

  2. But seriously, don’t be afraid – give it a go  ↩

Automatically Filing PowerPoint Presentations – Automator, Hazel, AppleScript

This came from a response to a fellow traveller in the Mac Power Users Facebook group. I was about to share the Automator action and Hazel rule that make up this little scheme when it dawned on me that this is a good opportunity to share a fairly straight forward workflow you can easily automate.

This is a fairly common need among students. Most good lecturers will share their presentations with you for their classes. Automating the filing of those slides is both, a good way to save a little time, and a way to ensure a consistent and reliable filing system. I don’t know about you, but my file management can get a little haphazard when done manually.

The situation is simple. Before or after class you are either sent, or given access to download a Powerpoint presentation with the slides for that particular lecture. However, you would rather have a PDF copy – or images as my MPU colleague prefers. There are a few ways you can come at this. If you simply want a PDF copy of the presentation, you can use Hazel to call an AppleScript and convert the file, rename and move it, and you’re done. If on the other hand you want images, you could do the conversion with an Automator workflow and simply add the ‘Render PDF as Images’ action to the end. Thereafter, it is a simple matter for Hazel to move the new file to wherever you want it. I tend to have it placed in my PDF Expert folder in iCloud, so I can markup the presentation on the iPad. Here is what the two versions of Hazel rules, and the Automator workflow look like:

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations With Hazel
Automator Workflow does most of the work here.  Either Hazel or Automator can rename and move the file

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations
Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations

If you want to build the Automator workflow yourself — and, there is no better way to learn how to use it — there are a couple of things to look out for. If you have any version of MS Office prior to 2016, you might be able to use the built-in automator action that looks like this:

Convert Powerpoint To Pdf
Previous versions of Microsoft Office included Automator Actions. Whether or not they work will depend on what version of PowerPoint created the presentation

Whether or not that will work for you is going to depend on the version of PowerPoint used to create the presentation. There appears to be some obscure bug with passing Office file names to Automator. As far as I can tell, MS Office no longer supports Automator directly, so you have a choice of hacking what you can from the 2011 actions or using AppleScript. Rather than messing around, trying to debug incompatible actions, AppleScript is your friend here. You can download the script itself here. It is also included in the Automator workflow, which you can download below, along with the Hazel rules. Happy Automating!

Downloads

Hazel Rules

Automator Workflow

The Necessity of using a Password Manager

Not so long ago one of my favourite podcasts, Reply All, had one of the most accessible pieces I have come across to present the case for using a password manager. I highly recommend listening to it here. That episode drew my attention to a service called Have I Been Pwned, which keeps a record of known data breaches that users can search to see if their credentials have ever been fleeced. A couple of searches and I quickly started finding the email addresses of friends, family and colleagues on the site.

It is all well and good for nerds like me to throw obscure acronyms around and pull out scary statistics. But despite the fact that a good password manager is easy to use – and given five minutes of attention, extremely simple to learn – most people, no matter how smart, will at best smile and nod. Or worse, simply tune out altogether. My sense is that most people either don’t realise how insecure their recycled credentials are, or they think ‘that will never happen to me, I have nothing worth stealing’. I can only hope that wouldn’t apply to experienced researchers and academics, but students too need to be aware of how vulnerable university networks are. There are numerous reasons for hackers to target universities, gaining access to thousands of usernames and passwords chief among them. Because of all this, I believe it is critical for anyone working within the walls of a university – virtual or otherwise – to have a secure means for managing their credentials. To my mind, a password manager is the best solution – it is certainly the easiest.

Which Password Manager?

As for which password manager, for sheer user-friendliness, ease of use, and excellent design, I still feel that 1Password is the best choice for most people. You might be aware that a lot of words have been spilled lately about changes coming from the makers of 1Password, Agile Bits. This provided part of the motivation to write this post. The concern from security experts has to do with the company’s move to a subscription service, and in turn the service itself being moved to a priority cloud based architecture. The concerns are not around the business model, but with certain technical decisions; specifically with the status of where the default user vaults are stored – i.e on the Agile Bits encrypted servers. It should go without saying that the vaults are mega-encrypted, so worthless to anyone without the user’s key, but to end the debate there drastically oversimplifies the matter.

I’m not going to dive any further into the debate itself, as I believe a lot of what is doing the rounds is either based on a combination of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the wants and needs of edge-case users who aren’t representative of most people. Moreover, some people seem to be conflating the Mac and Windows versions, and the functionality under debate remains very much a part of 1Password. I would argue that regardless of the validity to concerns around cloud-storage, 1Password is still the best password manager for most people. In fact, some of the features that make it so are only available because of the cloud-based architecture. My take is this:

  • The vast majority of people are ludicrously vulnerable at the moment, simply because they have next to nothing in place to manage their online security. For most people, not only are obscure security threats not a huge concern, but there is much more to be gained by using a password manager than maintaining the status quo.
  • In the absence of a clever password scheme – which, let’s face it, most people will never use – even if you do generate strong passwords, you still need an absolutely unique one for every site and service you use. Most people who have taken this half measure are using paper notebooks, or some for of plain text or spreadsheet to store the credentials. Ironically, this is a half measure that will make you doubly vulnerable
  • A Password manager does all the work once you get used to using it. Not only have I found 1Password to have the best user experience in this regard, anybody I have ever got to use it in earnest has taken to it immediately. The browser extension on the Mac, and iOS Safari automatically generates and stores credentials for new registrations, and automatically populates forms and logins. It can also populate payment forms with one click, making it even more useful than Safari’s own Auto-Fill features.
  • Take travelling researchers, with the new 1Password travel mode one can remove the entire app from a device and then reinstate it once any overly officious border police have done with their perusal of any given device.
  • There are further benefits to having secure information in such a vault if you were to ever to lose your mobile device and other valuables. I use 1Password to store my bank cards and encrypted copies of documents.
  • 1Password’s subscription model is one of the more advantageous memberships of its kind. The Families plan gives you 5 licenses for US$5 a month. You can manage vaults for your less technically inclined, younger or older family members. It also means shared vaults for credentials you all need access to, Netflix anybody?
  • The concerns around the cloud-storage model are moot for anyone wanting to sync a password vault and doing it via Dropbox.
  • I could go on, but I fear I have lost enough of you already.
Best Password Manager for iPad, iPhone and Mac
1Password is the most user-friendly of any password manager I have ever used. Not only is the interface well designed, but the user experience is excellent on both Mac and your iOS devices

 

iPassword best password manager for iPhone, iPad and Mac
1Password for iPhone and iPad has an excellent user extension which makes it one of the most useful Apps on iOS

Perhaps Agile Bits could have handled this situation better than they have, but to be clear, they are keeping intact the functionality that security boffins most value, i.e local vaults. Unfortunately, it seems people will seize upon anything to reinforce their own reluctance to address their security issues. So controversy like this tends to feed the fear and doubt. My concern is that people use something other than recycling passwords, becoming so blasé about resetting them that they become easy targets for phishing attacks. Attacks that nowadays can easily include the capture of two-factor authentication. A password manager mitigates most of the risks. And without labouring the point, using one will provide a huge improvement to most people’s security.

Other Options

Lastpass – I have been a user of Lastpass in the past. I have never found it to be as user-friendly as 1Password, but it has a lot of fans. The biggest selling point is its free tier, which is a good start for anyone balking at paying for security – and the upgrade price is only US$12 a year. You will need to upgrade to use things like two-factor authentication and device syncing.

Dashlane – I prefer the user interface of Dashlane to Lastpass. It has a similar ‘freemuim’ model, with similar limitations before upgrading.

Setapp: Accessing the Apps Necessary for Study and Research

Talk to anyone who knows anything about the software economy and you will soon find out this is a strange time. Developers are trying to find ways to stay afloat, while coping with a user base conditioned by the so-called freemuim model. I know a lot of normally rational and generous people who balk at paying for software. I have been there myself. There are some legitimate historical reasons for that, it would be easy to implicate some of the biggest software names in the stratification between obscene rents for virtual necessities, and the meagre sums people will pay for the lesser known. These days I feel I have a better grip on the cognitive dissonance between stumping a fiver for a coffee and paying a fairer price for apps. For example, making music on the iPad allows me to purchase incredibly powerful apps that cost a fraction of the price demanded by their desktop counterparts, let alone purchasing the equivalent hardware. And yet, I still know folks who will wince at paying $10 for an app that took a developer years to make, despite this massive difference in cost versus utility from desktop to mobile devices. I can’t imagine how disheartening this must be for the people who make such apps.

While I am primarily referring to iPhone and iPad apps, if you will excuse the pun, these developments have had a tangible impact on the Mac App situation too. Apple hasn’t done much at all to mitigate the difficulties facing developers – something all but the most benighted of Apple fans have started to acknowledge – especially given the 30% tax they claim for access to their walled garden. For independent developers, the situation can be pretty dire. Which is why, along with some of the reasons above, and more besides, I feel relatively positive about the service offered by Settapp. To my mind, the collective nature of it makes sense – just as the single license model of old is unsustainable, so tool is the idea of having an individual subscription to every single app you use.

macOS Study Research Apps
Setapp already has some of the best apps available on Mac, including numerous education and research focused tools.

I have already mentioned a number of the apps available on Settapp. Many of them are available for purchase individually on the App Store, and for a lot of people that may well remain the best option if you only need the likes of Marked, Uylsses or Taskpaper. On the other hand, a Settapp subscription will give you all of these apps, and a whole lot more for ten US dollars per month. It will also mean you never have to worry about purchasing new versions, or dealing with in-ap purchases for monetised features.

As far as students, academics, and other researchers are concerned, Setapp is ideally stocked with a number of apps I would recommend outright. To mention just a few, it includes one of my very favourite writing apps, Uylsses [1]. Both iThoughts and XMind are excellent mind mapping tools. Then there is the Findings research notebook, the Studies flash card app, a unique and really promising academic writing app called Manuscripts. Timelines, outliners, task management tools; the list goes on. They are adding to the collection all the time, and better still the service is not loaded with junk. It is an invite only, curated collection; they are banking their reputation on some of the best software available on the Mac.

If you are looking to graduate from piracy, or this appeals to you for any other reason, you can check it out and signup for a free month at Setapp


  1. Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part II

Automation Utilities

Picking up where I left off with the first Mac automation post; we covered some of the more well known Automation utilities on macOS in Text Expander, Automator, and Hazel. To be fair, at least one of the areas I cover this time around is likewise pretty well known, but I also want to highlight a couple of unique utilities that qualify as automation tools. These tools have both explicit and implicit utility for study, research, or indeed any academic related workflows. As with all such suggestions, the limit to what you can do with this kind of software will be somewhere between what you can dream up, and how much time you are willing (or able) to sink into them.

Popclip

 

Automating Academic Workflows

Popclip is one of those apps that highlights a gap in design reciprocity between iOS and macOS. We have always had the right-click [1] context menu to access functionality in OS X or macOS, but Popclip brings an interpretation of the context menu from iOS back to the Mac. The need to port contextual functionality such as copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad led to the creation of the ubiquitous black speech-bubble that appears from a long press on those devices. Popclip takes that idea, brings it to the Mac, and makes it extensible with customizable actions. I have become so used to using it that if ever I’m on a Mac without it I get a little lost. I use it for text transformations [2], Shortening URLs, dictionary and thesaurus lookups, adding tasks to my task manager, adding links to Pinboard or Instapaper, adding references to Papers, translations, and the list just keeps going. This link will take you to the pre-packaged extensions that are available, but the good news doesn’t end there. Not only will a Github search reveal many more ingenious uses for Popclip, and you can even code your own. To get you started with customization, check out Brett Terpstra’s Popclip Extension Generator

Alfred, Launchbar and others (…but mostly Alfred)

Automating Academic Workflows

 

A lot of Mac nerds would argue that a Launcher is the purist’s starting point for workflow automation. If you want to keep your hands on the keyboard, then using a launcher is essential. Spotlight has developed well beyond its basic search capabilities in the past few years to the point where, although still relatively basic, it is much more than a mere search engine and application launcher nowadays. What’s more, Spotlight comes baked right into macOS, so a lot of people will find that hitting command (⌘) space will allow you to do a lot more with the keyboard than you realised.

Alfred WorkflowsGoing beyond Spotlight to incorporate automation is where the best third-party launchers excel. As far as which launcher is the best? That honestly depends on who you talk to, but there seems to be a fairly solid consensus that the contenders are LaunchBar, and my personal favourite Alfred.

Both LaunchBar and Alfred are limitlessly extensible; LaunchBar with Actions and Alfred with Workflows. It is difficult to say how one might choose between them [3], but you may find the keystrokes for one, or the other, more intuitive for the way you work. Other than that admittedly abstract and vague selection criteria [4], it is fair to say the user community around Alfred appears much more engaged and accessible. Both the official site and forum, and the unofficial Packal site, are loaded with workflows, advice and friendly automation ninjas willing to help you down a rabbit hole, or back out of one.

Again, I use Alfred for all kinds of things. The screenshot of my workflows is only part of the picture. Searching my Papers library, converting documents with Pandoc[5], searching my Pinboard bookmarks, making currency conversions, task management input, natural-language entry of calendar events, time-stamping notes, Image Optimisation, file management. Alfred is an onion, and in reality I have barely peeled back the first layer. There is a built-in clipboard manager, and text-expander style snippet function. Anything that you can automate via scripting can be triggered via a launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar, which means they capable of all kinds of complicated tasks. As a bonus, they can manage the simple things too, I even lock, logoff and shutdown my Mac with Alfred – and Alfred also has an iOS remote app that allows me to control my Mac from my iPhone or iPad.

These are not the only two apps of this kind, of course. There are die-hards still using the OG launcher, Quicksilver, and given it is open source and free, for some it remains worth a look. Another old favourite of long-time Mac users is Butler, from Many Tricks. There is the lightweight Launcher [6] from Nulana, which is reknown for its advanced calculator and script launcher. Finally, a couple I feel are worth keeping an eye on, the open sauce Zazu App that bills itself as an extensible launcher for ‘hackers, creators and dabblers’, and perhaps the most interesting new app in tis area Lacona, a natural language launcher built on Node.js that already has web automation triggers through IFTTT. [7]

Dropzone

Automating Academic Workflows

Dropzone is another extensible utility that can thread automation actions into your workflow. Another example of an app that is incredibly useful even in its most basic use cases, or can be bent to one’s will with a little ingenuity. The basic premise is very simple, Dropzone is a menu bar app that extends the drag and drop capabilities of your Mac, it houses destinations and automation actions on the ‘drop zone’. You can use it to hold, copy or move files between apps [8], configure it to upload files to cloud services or an FTP server, or social media sites. The real power of the app lies in the customisable actions – I have scripts for renaming files, stripping formatting from text, making animated GIFs, shortening URLs, and so on – but Dropzone also makes for an excellent conduit to other parts of your system. For example, as part of my workflow for posting images to this site I will take a screen shot and drag it to the images folder configured in Dropzone, from there Hazel will invoke an Automator workflow [9] to resize the image, then pass the file to ImageOptim for compression and removal of personal metadata. I could easily automate the whole process, but I don’t want every single screenshot I take sent to the same place, so Dropzone allows me to have a little more control over the file picking.


  1. Or option-click for you die hard, old-school Apple nerds  ↩

  2. Such as capitalisation, Sentence-case for formatting titles, clearing formatting, hyphenating etc  ↩

  3. Some people solve this by using them both, but I’m yet to find something I need LaunchBar for that I can’t do with Alfred  ↩

  4. And the fact the Alfred’s developers have a commendably irreverent name Running with Crayons  ↩

  5. Rather than using the command line  ↩

  6. Yes, an imaginative name that  ↩

  7. Lacona is available with Setapp, a subscription app store I intend to cover soon  ↩

  8. This might sound silly, but for anyone working with fullscreen apps or split-screen it is seriously handy  ↩

  9. The same workflow in the previous article  ↩

EFF Annual Report: ‘Who Has Your Back? Government Data Requests 2017’

The linked report can give you a better idea of what you are getting into when you trust your private data to the many apps and services that have become so entwined with our daily lives. Privacy and security being the perennial issues they are, this annual report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation should be mandatory reading for students and researchers. Although the idea that Universities themselves have always been at the vanguard of free speech, academic freedom and individual rights is an easily dispelled myth, generally students – and many academics – have been. Regardless, this is something that everybody needs to be across. As the EFF puts it

 

In this era of unprecedented digital surveillance and widespread political upheaval, the data stored on our cell phones, laptops, and especially our online services are a magnet for government actors seeking to track citizens, journalists, and activists…

 

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I

 

If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details [2], signatures or often repeated phrases.


  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.

Automator

Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 2
Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.

Hazel

Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 3
Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.


  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

  3. And epically long!  ↩

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automnator Workflow