DEVONthink Deals for Black Friday

I’m sitting on a promise to write up DEVONthink to GO in more detail for iPad only users. I have every intention of getting to that in the next couple of days. In the meantime, this is a heads up on the impending Black Friday promotion by DEVON technologies. They write:

Along with the holiday feasting, another tradition is Black Friday shopping. Getting up at 3 a.m. to go stand in line outside your favorite retailer, rushing en masse into the store the moment it opens, being tackled by someone's grandma as you try to get the best gifts of the season.

We've made it easy for you to get a shiny new copy of DEVONthink, DEVONthink To Go (in the App Store), DEVONagent, DEVONsphere, and DEVONnote, all without having to get out of bed or brave the roads and crowds.

This is a world-wide offer starting on Thursday, Nov 23rd, 2017, at 6 p.m. CET so that you can take advantage of it regardless whether you live in New Zealand or Hawaii. The offer will close on Tuesday, Nov 28th, at 9 a.m. CET. This promotion cannot be combined with other discounts, e.g. the students & educators discount

Given the discounts can’t be combined with the education discount , it works out to be the same price for a lot of readers of this site. But, not everybody here is institutionalised. Stay tuned for those details on the iOS app.

For more detail, check out their website

DEVONthink To Go updated for iPhone X, adds PDF and sheet editors

This round of updates sees DEVONthink To Go  updated for iPhone X, adding PDF and sheet editors. I mentioned DEVONthink to go as a novel solution for better data security recently. While that alone is a good reason to put it to use, it drastically undersells the apps all round utility. DEVON Technologies summarise the app like so:

DEVONthink To Go is DEVON technologies' document and information management solution for iOS. Serving as repository for a large variety of data types it lets users keep their important documents with them at all times. It offers a rich set of organizing features as well as built-in viewers and editors for many file formats. Document provider and file provider extensions make documents available in other apps, and an encrypted synchronization keeps all data in sync with other iOS devices as well as with its Mac counterpart, DEVONthink, without compromizing the user's privacy.

Apart from the obligatory iPhone X support. This update includes further improvements to File App integration, smarter PDF interactions and markup, new document editing capabilities for table data., and refinements to database syncing.

Effectively using DEVONthink apps is a huge topic, given what you can do with them. I have every intention of a deep dive on DEVONthink, when I can do it the justice it deserves. It is tidbits for the meantime. For users of DEVONthink on macOS, DEVONthink to Go is an ideal companion app. On its own merits, it is also an excellent self-contained solution for iPad first, or iOS only users. Now with drag and drop on iOS 11,  OCR integration with third-party apps like Scanbot is much easier. The excellent native x-callback-url support also makes DEVONthink to Go one of the best apps you will find for Workflow automation. All in all, you can set up a robust research system on iOS using DEVONthink. With, or without a Mac.

iA Writer 5 for iOS Released

Ios Ulysses Alternative

If you are looking for a plain text writing app for academic writing — or for any writing for that matter. You could do a lot worse than to try out iA Writer. One of the first Markdown based Text Editors I ever used, it remains one of the writing apps I am most likely to recommend on any platform. With the recent change to a subscription model for Ulysses, a lot of writers are looking for an Alternative on iOS. 1 With this latest update, iA Writer is an ever more obvious candidate for that job.

Featuring Files and the Keyboard

In my post about academic writing on the iPad, I mentioned iA Writer is a pleasure to work with on iOS. That was always true, where the actual writing is concerned. Prior to this release, if you were used to working in an app like Ulysses, you might have found the organisational aspects of iA Writer less sophisticated. This update has addressed that in a big way. Both via the extension of utility to the keyboard, and through integration with the Files app in iOS 11. Retaining its singular focus on the writing experience, iA Writer now includes excellent search capabilities, and customisable commands. All from the keyboard.

iOS Ulysses Alternative
iA Writer makes it trivial to do everything from the keyboard

When it comes to words on a page, the writing experience of iA Writer has made it one of best text editors available . Information Architects appear to be obsessive about detail. Their manifesto of form follows content is evident in the deliberate choices of iA Writer’s user experience. The design ethos has adapted responsive typography to a distraction free writing environment. Minimalism done wrong can enforce its simplicity on the process of the user. In iA Writer, it presents a deceptively simple interface that hides a powerful, yet flexible workflow. Ultimately the app gets out of your way. The developers understand that a decent writing tool needs to adapt to a potentially messy workflow:

in practice writing resists a strictly linear process. A single note doesn’t transform smoothly into a draft, and from draft to editing is more of a Tango than a March. The common process is blurry, dynamic, and in many ways circular.

Still Writing in Word?

I come across a lot of writers who haven’t gotten past their Microsoft Word dependency. Often it is because they don’t realise what an alternative writing App like iA Writer is capable of. Turning in your papers as Word documents is not a problem. With iA Writer, or Ulysses you focus on the writing first, then export the finished product in the format required. Nothing has changed with this update for the end product, but exporting is another feature made accessible through the keyboard. On iOS, you might require some workarounds for referencing, but if you are looking to ditch the word processor. There is less standing in your way than you may realise.

Web Collaboration

The direction that Information Architects are taking is encouraging. They have opened the app up to a massive new user base with an Android version. That move has proved fruitful in encouraging the development of a web collaboration tool. That is a move that I will keep a keen eye on. Collaboration is another area that keeps writers attached to Microsoft Word, or more often Google Docs these days. The options for co-authored writing in plain text are few and far between, and I’m yet to find one with a remotely satisfying user experience. If the developers can bring anything like the polish of this latest update to iA Writer to web based collaboration, it could work out very well. The intention is for the web service to provide ongoing revenue, which I suspect will go down with users better than the subscription only option being adopted elsewhere. Time will tell.

For anyone still grappling with the subscription issue, the feature set of iA Writer makes it a compelling alternative to Ulysses. I have a subscription to Ulysses as part of Setapp, so I haven’t had to contemplate that dilemma too closely. If you have, you may want a comparable Markdown text editor for macOS, iOS, or both. To get a general feel for the app, you can start with a free trial of the Mac App. One of the features that has me using Ulysses more these days, is the ability to post directly to WordPress. You can do the same thing with iA Writer.

Free Update

iA Writer 5 is a free upgrade for owners of the app, and for new users the iOS version is still sold at a ridiculously low price. The macOS version of the update is yet to be released, more on that when it arrives.

iA Writer is available on the App Store

  1. I’m not commenting on that debate here. A lot of writers are not only happy to pay the subscription, but like the idea they are supporting the most crucial app in their workflow.

Workflow 1.7.7 Brings Drag and Drop Integration, iPhone X Support, and More iOS 11 Changes – MacStories

Workflow Updated.png

As usual, MacStories has the full scoop on updates to Workflow. This is timely. I needed a prompt to write up some citation workflows for students I have been playing with. Writing any detail about the release itself is redundant. Viticci has that completely covered,

The marquee addition of this release is full support for drag and drop in iOS 11, which is especially impressive on the iPad as it allows you to trigger actions based on content you drop into a workflow. In the original Workflow, if you wanted to feed external content (text, images, links, videos, etc.) to actions, you had to manually select an item from a native picker, use the iOS clipboard, or use Workflow's action extension in other apps. The system worked well, but it was neither fast nor intuitive.

1Password 7 Adds Face ID Support, ‘Quick Copy’ Feature for Faster Copy & Paste – MacStories

MacStories have a write up of the latest big update to 1Password. There is enough hype everywhere for the iPhone X. I’ll happily stay away from that. It does, however, mean we have a slew of app updates on the way. I wrote about my preference for 1Password not too long ago, but already that post is starting to look dated. The improvements to the user experience keep coming. The new Quick Copy feature is a good example of the attention to detail from Agile Bits. They seem intent on eliminating little the little annoyances and friction that prevent users from using certain security features. They even tidy up interactions where third-party apps haven’t bothered to implement the system extension.

From Macstories,

First up is Quick Copy, a feature aimed at speeding up the process of filling secure information in apps that do not integrate with 1Password's action extension. Quick Copy is designed for those times when you're switching back and forth between an app and 1Password: when you copy a field in 1Password, exit the app, then return to it to copy another field, the field after the one you previously copied is automatically placed in the clipboard. For instance, if you copy your username, close 1Password, then open it again, the password field is automatically copied; if you copy your account's password, the one-time authentication code (the field displayed after the password one) will be copied instead.

Calendar 366: Fantastical Alternative

Fantastical Alternative for macOS and iOS

I really like Fantastical. It seems like magic the first time you try it. It also ruins you for data input. Once you have tried natural language capture there is no going back. I’m not being silly, I honestly get lost when I try to enter calendar events in the native Apple Calendar app. Or any app that doesn’t have natural language parsing. Flexibits natural language parsing is about as good as it gets, which is why I tend to recommend their apps. But, if you are looking for a Fantastical alternative for macOS and iOS, read on.

Most of my calendar interaction is on iOS. Between the iPhone and Apple Watch, being hopelessly forgetful isn’t the problem it once was. Fantastical’s capture abilities have kept me from using any app I consider to have a nicer user interface. I’m thinking of Timepage in particular, a wonderfully designed app that doesn’t support natural language parsing. Although, that said, one of the benefits of Apple’s Eventkit is that you can use one app for input, another for interactions, and another for notifications. If you want to go crazy. But, that is a story for another time.

As far as macOS apps go, Fantastical is not cheap. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fine piece of software, and handy as hell. Just type your events into it like you would speak them, and watch it do its magic. But here’s the rub, it cost me a fiver on my iPhone, and only twice that on my iPad. It will set you back five times those apps put together to complete the trilogy. If iOS is your main port of call for managing your calendars, it can be difficult to justify the expense of the Mac app.

Perhaps I’m being a little facetious. There are features on the desktop that some people will find indispensable. For my own, particular need the macOS app does not have five times the utility of two iOS apps put together. But for some users, the travel time alerts alone could be worth that. If you’re a student, you will likely have a similarly tricky time with the extra dime.

Fantastical Alternative for macOS and iOS

Here is the good news. There is an alternative. The developers of Calendar 366 have just released version two of their macOS app. It uses natural language parsing for data entry. It is not quite as mature as Fantastical, but it has more than enough for my needs. Between that, and menubar access, it is about all I need for a calendar. The fact that it ordinarily costs less than half the price of Fantastical is a pretty decent selling point, but you can cut that in half again if you pick it up during the launch of the new version.

Fantastical Alternative App macOS iOSFantastical Alternative App macOS iOS

There is more than a little familiar about the dark theme, but that's not a charge I have to answer for personally. I'm trying to lighten up my workspace at the moment, I'm getting over the dark mode fad. Calendar 366 is half price on the Mac App Store at the moment. You can pick it up for US$10. The iOS version is universal, so you can pick up the the set for a steal.

macOS High Sierra: Safari’s iOS Style Permissions

New Reasons To Use Safari

There was a time that Safari was a clunky, annoying browser that you could install on Windows.  To be fair, pretty much all browsers met that criteria at one time. Things change. In this week’s show and tell I included a link from The Verge, who are shipping Safari as the best reason to upgrade your Mac to High Sierra. So far it’s hard to argue with that. With features added to both iOS 11 and macOS, there is a lot to like about the development of Safari. Of particular interest is the new ability to control some of the internet's more annoying tendencies with Safari's iOS style permissions

This is one of the areas that I have tried to balance security concerns with usability. I haven't always felt comfortable with the results. For a time I used a tricked out install of Firefox, in accordance with one of my favourite privacy resources. The industry around tracking and data collection is so cunning that extensions can become a data point for tracking in themselves. This is one of many reasons the evolution of Safari has become so interesting, moving protection to within the webkit framework brings that balance a little closer.

Safari's iOS Style Permissions on macOS

It is the new granular approach to permissions that I am most impressed with. Particularly on macOS. Safari itself now contains the kind of detailed permissions that we are used to applying on a per app basis for iOS. Something I find incredibly annoying — and invasive — is having websites try to send me push notifications. Who in their right mind would want their browser to badger them all day long? It's more than just an annoyance, though. While some of the older security issues of Push have been incrementally addressed, by design they provide another means for tracking. Look closely and you will notice there is an irony in the way Apple is implicated in the origins of this. Thankfully, they are getting better at addressing these — perhaps unintended — consequences. Notifications are among the many things addressed in the new ability to control permissions for Safari. The upside of Push, it is a permission based protocol. So ultimately, it is one of the web’s annoyances that we can actually opt out of, and now without much trouble. It is not the only one.

 

Safari's iOS style permissions
If you allow sites to request permission to send notifications, you will have the option to allow or deny on a site by site basis. Permission can be revoked via the Safari preferences

 

The influence of the mobile platform on macOS is becoming more and more obvious. The rollout of Continuity has no doubt made this inevitable, but we have seen more and more features make the crossover. From small, but important additions like Night Shift, to the way iOS devices have been the testing ground for significant new technologies. From a user standpoint, I feel the most significant, visible influence right now is the approach to permissions. The improved preference allow a user to block an entire category. Or you can manage them on a case by cade basis. Like iOS, you can manage access to the microphone and camera, access to location, and notifications. Then there are usability features, like the ability to turn on Reader mode by default for particular sites.  And, you can now put an end to those pesky auto-pay videos — you know who you are… Macworld.

Safari's iOS style permissions
This particular feature has been a hit, and with good reason. Autoplay is one of the most obnoxious features that internet advertisers have invented.

 

 

You can access all of these permissions in Safari’s preferences. Or, if you want to change settings on the fly, you can right-click — or ctrl + click — on a website’s name in the omnibar, and select Settings for this Website…

Improvements to Safari macOS
Settings for individual sites can be adjusted, or controlled from the address bar

Gaining Control

The reality of the modern internet is it is a cesspit of shady behaviour by supposedly legitimate actors. Without even getting into the relevant arguments, the performance of websites is a case in itself for having control over the excess. I won’t lean into the rest of the story here, I can make my case another time. Suffice to say, there are good reasons to have some control over this. I will say that Apple’s interventions are doubly interesting, considering the industry built up around its fandom. Apple related sites are some of the worstoffenders too. My sense is there is much more nuance to this than you can glean from the exploding heads who are worried about their wallets. The argument that Apple is doing more to save advertising than harm it in these moves, should carry water with anyone thinking clearly.

But Webkit more generally has ushered in significant, positive changes. Especially when it comes to performance. Webkit also provides significant advantages for the implementation of content Blockers. One of many reasons Safari is starting to back up some of it’s claims.

Reasons to use Safari Browser on iOS

iOS users have had good reason to keep an alternative browser around. I still keep iCab Mobile on hand, for all the little things it can do. It has always been like a browsing pocketknife. It really is the only genuinely extensible, standalone browser on iOS. 1 The built-in download manager retains its utility, even as we move into the brave new world of the iOS Files App. For as long as I have been an iOS user, anytime I hit a road block while browsing, I knocked it over with iCab. However, Safari is extensible insofar as iOS itself is extensible. As the operating system has improved, so too have the default apps. Like other native apps, it is the system wide hooks that make it so useful. 2 From handoff, to iCloud synced history, bookmarks and reading list. All of these features are available system wide. Where third-party developers have cottoned on to the beauty of app extensions, iOS has improved out of sight. With Apple taking possession of Workflow, this is only going to get better.

From the more incremental improvements in iOS 10, it is hard to argue that Safari is Apple’s most mature, even its best iOS app. In iOS 11, Safari comes loaded with all kinds of new tricks. Like macOS, there is further control granted to user permissions. Although, it is more clear the influence iOS has had on the Mac. There is also the addition of WebRTC and media capture, and even access to experimental features. Nobody could argue that iOS — the iPhone in particular —hasn’t significantly influenced web technology. One of its most significant achievements is surely that hand it played in burying Flash. I would argue that this trend is going to continue through the extension of new features in Safari.

Look Again

If, for whatever reason, you have held on to the impression that Safari is a clunky waste of time, trust me it is worth another look. You don’t have to go far to find lingering impressions of the browser are outdated. 3 I know, I was a subscriber to that view. Even for established users, there are new reasons to to use Safari. The changes in macOS High Sierra and iOS 11 are impressive. Apple has found a way to make privacy its point of difference. While I would urge people to see that for what it is, I'm not churlish enough to overlook the way it benefits users. These a big improvements.

  1. Despite what other browsers may claim
  2. The Notes App is a particularly good example of this.
  3. The icon in that link was replaced more than 3 years ago. The browser is unrecognisable from that time.

Choosing the Right VPN

Choosing the best VPN

Reliable Information

As Ars Technica 1 discovered, choosing a VPN service is difficult. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, VPN services have some of the highest paying affiliate programs online. This means there are often huge incentives for the shady best VPN lists and clickbait that dominate search results. 2 The same incentives hold for ‘worst VPN' lists. They direct traffic toward venders offering higher rewards.  Second, people feel vulnerable, and with good reason. There is nothing like vulnerability for bringing out the sharks.

Finding reviews of VPN services that are not glorified advertisements is as hard as finding google search results without list posts. The torrent of junk articles, and marketing shills pedalling services they never use, means the only way to find a service that works for you is to either try a bunch yourself, or get a recommendation from a trusted source. I am working toward making this site the latter.

Trial and Error

The advice of trusted sources has led me to try some of the best known and popular VPN services. In this are Cloak VPN — which has recently become Encrypt Me— and Tunnel Bear. Both of which are fine services that will be good enough for a lot of users, but I have set a higher threshold for privacy than either service can provide. If you needs are modest, Tunnel Bear even offers a free tier — although I doubt 500mb will satisfy many people reading this. The best feature ofCloak/Encrypt.me is it’s user friendliness and ability to automatically connect to chosen networks, but I find the service is expensive considering its other limitations.

Until recently access to streaming services in New Zealand was poor. The way around that for committed nerds was to override the geolocation. While this is not the only, or even the main reason I use a VPN, it remains a decent barometer for the quality of service. It is what led me to try the smartDNS and VPN from OverPlay, which is a service plagued with problems. Further trial and error led me to try numerous other services, includingPrivate Internet Access, IPVanish, Express VPN, and Pure VPN. All of which were found wanting in different ways for my particular needs. In some cases the connection speeds would be good, but streaming or something else would break. At other times, the opposite would be true. I kept bumping up against problems that would put me back at square one. From there a host of others either had terrible speeds, are plagued with usability problems, or simply aren’t secure beneath all the bluster 3

So having tried so many VPN services, and having spent hours sifting through the claptrap to read anything that isn’t a glorified advertorial — or self-serving blog posts by service providers. I hope that my opinion at least has some weight behind it. I must stress, however, this is still very much an opinion. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Privacy and Security

Privacy and security are the bread and butter of any VPN service. Every year Torrent Freak runs an updated survey called Which VPN Services Take Your Anonymity Seriously?. The questions range from how each service handles logs, to whether or not they own their own services. They ask what they do in the event of a court order. The strength of their encryption technology, and whether or not they support anonymous payment. I will let you decide for yourself how important each of the answers are to you. Technically the article is an affiliated list, not completely unlike the ones I criticise above. The difference is this one includes a lot of relevant information. Neither does it scream at you with arbitrary ratings, gold stars and fake medallions. This is a worthwhile exercise for the quality of the questions. Putting stock in them has proven fruitful in finding a service that I am happy with.

Elsewhere, similar concerns are addressed by privacytools.io — an excellent privacy and security resource with an active community on Reddit. Particularly the issue of legal jurisdiction. Privacytools.io takes an uncompromising approach to where the service is located, and what legal implications that has for how they operate. The importance of location is something that services like Cloak/Encrypt.me 4 contest for their own obvious reasons. I happen to live in a so-called Five Eyes country — and one that has shown a liberal application of due process at times. So even for my simple needs, I would prefer to err on the side of caution and take the advice of folks who make it their business to know better.

User Experience

Beyond the crucial matters of security and privacy, what remains is the user experience. Yes, the quality of service matters. It matters a lot. Yet, you can be as secure and anonymous as you like, but if getting there requires the use of substandard apps, obscure configurations, and crawling speeds, then I doubt you will be persuaded.

No matter what a VPN service claims it can deliver in terms of bandwidth, there is no such thing as a VPN that doesn't slow your traffic down in some way. The question becomes how much of a hit you will take. The only way speed issues are addressed in earnest is by having servers close to where you are. If a service can bring together proximity, privacy and security, with a decent user experience, then it starts being worth your time.

Having done all the work balancing out all of these questions, I eventually landed on a VPN service that I can happily say meets my needs. Having used NordVPN 5 for over a year now, I finally feel comfortable with recommending it to others.

This is a further summary of what I feel NordVPN has going for it:

  • The NordVPN apps are a pleasure to use. Just install, login and click to connect. The include a graphical map for choosing the server location. From there you can drill down to chose individual servers. The client includes a kill switch for any apps you choose, so if the service gets disconnected nobody will catch a glimpse of you pulling down your latest ‘public domain' television episodes
  • The desktop apps include a contextual search engine that will suggest the best servers for particular tasks.
  • The service is truly multi-platform, covering everything from the mainstream operating systems to Raspberry Pi, Open VPN and firmware for just about any router you can think of. They also sell pre-flashed routers to run the service from the point of connection.
  • A single account can connect 6 simultaneous devices. Or as many as you like if you run it on your router
  • They are the only service I have found that consistently keeps ahead of the geo-blocking and VPN blocking efforts of streaming services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. You will sometimes need to contact support to find which servers are working as it continues to be a game of cat and mouse for every service, but the response has always been immediate via their 24/7 chat support
  • The Mac client for NordVPN include a technology they call Cybersec, which blocks trackers, malware and intrusive data hogging advertisements
  • They currently have a network of 1093 servers operating across 61 countries. I am yet to find something I cannot access with the service.
  • A number of dedicated P2P servers are specifically configured for file sharing
  • Double VPN and TOR over VPN are uber privacy services if you ever need to break out the tinfoil hat
  • Support has been quick, responsive and friendly. Not that I have ever needed it for much.
  • The service is comparatively inexpensive, they currently have a deal that amounts to US$3.29 per month — albeit if you sign up for two years. Shorter terms, starting at one month, are also cost effective. You can check out the options here

The Limits of Anonymity

Having covered the good stuff, I want to stress there is no such thing as a perfect VPN service. To my mind, any service that betrays the trust of its users is committing commercial suicide. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. It also says nothing of mistakes, or of bugs in the code. I trust NordVPN for my purposes, but if your goal is absolute anonymity, then you are going to need a lot more than what any such service can provide. If that is the case, then start with TOR.

Across the board VPN services ted to either lay claim to, to imply, an infallibility that they are not only incapable of delivering, but for most people is impossible to verify. To the credit of services like the VPN formerly known as Cloak, they make no such claims to anonymity, but rather aim to ensure your safety on untrusted networks and so on. I happen to want more from a VPN, but I'm not daft enough to overlook the glaringly obvious fact that using any VPN service requires an unparalleled leap of faith. All of your data is funnelled through a server you have no control over. Somehow I doubt anyone reading this is looking for advice on how to get away with illegal activity, suffice to say I don't think a VPN is going to cover you if you are.

Why use a VPN?

VPN providers are becoming increasingly important as the ever decreasing circle of internet privacy is squeezed by big advertising and ideological zealotry. While accessing television shows that you otherwise might not be able to, is potentially fun, it is not the reason you need to take this seriously. There are any number of reasons why you should. Consider the draconian laws and mandatory data retention in Australia. The extreme surveillance in the UK, or internet service providers preparing to auction off user data in the US. These are the real reasons that you should consider a VPN. As for the ‘I have nothing to hide' cliché, my favourite response remains the Snowden line, ‘Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say'. Believing otherwise is not only naive, it’s dangerous.

As for academics, the cynic in me fears that security measures are only going to become more relevant as the aforementioned circle starts cross the threshold of so-called academic freedom. The signs are there for anyone to see. Sadly privacy and security are something of a privilege and a luxury at this point in time, but if you have the means this is something worth your attention. What a VPN can provide you with is extra security and privacy, but only when combined with competent online behaviour.

I want to end this with something of a disclaimer. I qualify my recommendation with a reminder that you should be clear on your needs when looking at a VPN. Go in with your eyes open. If you want to understand just how subjective this can be, head over to reddit and try to find a VPN provider that hasn’t been trashed by somebody. What works for a gamer on a PC is not necessarily going to translate to an academic researching wanting uninterrupted access across multiple time zones. I also have to add that my choice of service has been a balancing act, for example I have used faster services than NordVPN, but none of them offered enough of the features I needed.

There is a lot of misunderstanding around, and some frankly ridiculous expectations at times. If you keep yours realistic, and test your chosen service against your specific needs, you are less likely to join the such and such service sucks chorus on social media. Despite all of the aforementioned misinformation, there are a number of good VPN services available. If you are not ready to accept my recommendation, start with the list on. Even if criteria your is not as exacting as mine — or for that matter, more so — find a recommendation from a source you trust. 6 NordVPN works well for me. That gives me the confidence to suggest it here, but I cannot guarantee your needs will be met as well as mine. If you try it and are not satisfied, do not be shy about asking for your money back. They will give it to you.

If you do want to try NordVPN, they offer a 30 day, no questions asked money back guarantee. You can sign up at NordVPN.com

Rolling Your Own

If you can’t take the leap of faith required to use a third-party VPN service, and TOR doesn’t meet your needs, there is at least one other option. That is to roll your own VPN service using something like Algo. You will need access to virtual private server to set it up. The Algo repository suggests using Digital Ocean. I recommend using Linode, where you can set up a powerful server in next to no time for $5USD a month. You will need to be comfortable running a few simple commands in the terminal for setting up both the server and the VPN. Don’t let that put you off, if you can follow instructions you will be fine. I’m pretty sure most people learn the command line with a combination of cut, paste and hope anyway.

Once you it up and running you could use something like Shimo to connect to it from your Mac, which is also available with Setapp. Or configure it directly in the native macOS settings. On iOS you can do something similar, either configure it in settings or use a client like OpenVPN. If you are even contemplating rolling your own, I would expect this to make sense.

Further Reading (and watching)

Berkeley Blog – Why Care about Privacy

Nothing to Hide

Why Privacy Matters – Ted Talk

  1. The final subtitle in that article is not a good sign post. Some VPNs can most definitely put you at risk, but the onus is on the user to select a service that won't
  2. To be clear, this uses affiliate links. However, not only is that is far from its reason to exist, but nothing is linked without personal experience and usually at considerable personal expense. This site runs at a loss as a result. I would hope the difference between this and affiliate marketing is obvious.
  3. To be doubly clear, I am not condoning illegal activity
  4. The name change might appear arbitrary, but I would wager it has something to do with SEO. I also feel uncomfortable with their use of the phrase ‘free apps' for a service that requires a subscription
  5. Not to be confused with NordicVPN

Managing the Mac Menu Bar with Bartender

If you're the kind of person who has gone all in with OS X utilities — now macOS — , then you may have met with the problem of menu bar overload. Menu bar apps are one of the many ingenious aspects of macOS, so much so that it’s far too easy to go overboard with them. If you get too crazy, the menu bar can become so overloaded that icons start disappearing behind the actual menus of other apps. It end up looking something like this:

macOS Menu Bar Apps

Enter Bartender, a long time favourite of the mac geek community. Bartender 2 was already a neat solution for app addicts, offering the option of shifting less used apps to a secondary bar that acted as a dropdown shelf bellow the main menu bar. On top of which, apps whose presence in the menu bar was merely cosmetic could be hidden altogether, and apps that only require visibility while active could be configure to be so. Do a simple search for must have mac utilities and you will find Bartender on practically every list — with good reason.

In recent times, Bartender developer Surtees Studio has been busy getting ready to release version 3. The update takes an already tidy solution and builds in a touch of subtlety. Instead of adding a secondary menu bar — the Bartender Bar — Bartender 3 simply acts as a toggle, allowing the user to switch between frequently and lesser used apps. This is an an elegant, and supremely effective change to the user interface, making the new version seem much more integrated with macOS. For current users at first, it can seem a little strange not having that familiar Bartender bar appear on command, but it doesn’t take long to see this is an improvement. In the developer’s own words,

Initially we missed the below menu Bartender Bar too, but once your muscle memory gets used to the new setup and you have organised your items to suit your workflow in Bartender Preferences, and by ⌘+dragging items to a good position. We think you, like us, will start to feel Bartender now feels even more part of macOS.

If you are already a user of Bartender 2, the update is free. If it hasn’t happened already, simply activate it within the app preferences. If you are yet to become a user, you can download a 4-week trial from the website.

Update 23-03-2018: Bartender has become part of Setapp, making it yet another reason to pick up a subscription. You read more about Setapp here.

Jordan Merrick’s Excellent Workflow Directory

Until Workflow created its own, Jordan Merrick was host to one of the best curated collections of Workflows one could hope to find. The directory was understandably taken down with the advent of an official version, which briefly included a mechanism for sharing workflows among the community of users. Apple’s acquisition of the Workflow team scuppered that initiative, insofar as they have kept open the official gallery within the app, but closed down the community aspect. Thankfully, generous users like Merrick have once again filled the breach. From JordanMerrick.com

In December 2016, I announced that I’d no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.

Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it’d make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.

So I’ve decided to do just that, but in the process I’ve made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I’ve added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.

Workflow Automation iOS
How's this for meta, this is a framed shot of the very workflow that framed it…

Workflow remains a glaring gap on this site. To be fair, I’ve not been at this too long, but the real reason is the art to doing the app justice. There are some ingenious users around creating incredibly inventive workflows. By way of qualification for the link to Jordan Merrick.com consider that every image posted on this site that is framed with an iPad or iPhone mockup has been created with either this Workflow, or its predecessor. Not only is it one of the best uses of the app I have come across, but it has saved me epic amounts of time.

There has been a lot of conjecture around the future of the Workflow app, but not only has the app continued to receive updates, the signs are good for some form of future integration into iOS [^ Perhaps even beyond, one can only hope]. The design language of visual automation hits the sweet spot between the über nerd and curious tinkerer, lowering the bar for entry by a remarkable degree. If you are worried that you might pour a lot of energy into something that is fated to disappear, I truly doubt that will happen in such a way that will render your learnings obsolete. The visual programming paradigm that has its roots in Automator has been so well refined for touch interaction by Workflow, that it is here to stay in one form or another. On the flip side, with initiatives like the Workflow Directory, if you swish to do so, you can get a fair amount of mileage out of the app without building any workflows of your own, or at least by adapting some to your own purposes. Of course, if you already have the chops, there is plenty of karma to be gained by pitching in to the directory with a contribution.