The more Apple nags me to install macOs Big Sur, the more I am determined to do it when I’m good and ready. Apple has become intolerably aggressive about users updating their devices in the past couple of cycles, but there are plenty of sane reasons a user might want to avoid that, especially in the first few months. At the moment I want to block macOS Big Sur. I may upgrade eventually, but I have a simple reason for being cautious.
I rely on a bunch of hacks for compiling my thesis and managing citations that have caused me headaches to setup, and OS updates have caused problems in the past. Between Pandoc, Zotero with Better BibTex and the various ruby wrappers that automate it, like Pandocomatic and Scrivomatic, I have system that feels precarious While I understand these tools well enough to use them, I am a dabbler not a developer, so troubleshooting them takes up precious time.
Not only have Apple been messing with the Shell in the past couple of upgrades, but they are also deprecating Scripting languages. Some of those changes already happened, but it was messy after the macOS Catalina upgrade, so I’m not going to risk it before I try to automate thousands of citations while compiling a dissertation.In short, first hand experience says macOS updates can break things, as early adopters found during exams! Also, forcing people into things is just not cool. Not to mention all the privacy related shenanigans.
What to do? Well, again Apple are making this harder all the time.
If you just want to get rid of the nagging badge, you can run this in your terminal
defaults write com.apple.systempreferences AttentionPrefBundleIDs 0
Sadly, the mechanism that generates these notifications lives on like a zombie somewhere deep in the system, so you will probably need to run this command again when the nagging comes back.
If you are concerned you might bork it and accidentally install the upgrade, a helpful man called Hannes Juutilainen has made an app for systems admins that can be used by little people too. Note, you will probably need some minor terminal chops to get rid of it if you do eventually wish to upgrade. The app is called Big Sur Blocker.
My apologies to anyone hoping for a meaningful update, the site has been quiet for a few weeks while. Time is hard to come by, nonetheless new material is not far away. In the meantime, I draw your attention to the annual WinterFest sale from Eastgate. Some of the best apps you will find anywhere for study and academic work are on the list, among them the most important software I own. These are the highlights:
One of only two reference managers I can recommend at present, Bookends is annoyingly good. I say that because I am currently invested in Zotero, while I continue to use the API for building iOS shortcuts. If it were not for that exercise, I would switch permanently to Bookends. It is everything I always hoped Papers 3 would be and never was. If you want a native referencing solution this is it.
I write in Markdown wherever I can, but there is nothing that comes remotely close to providing what Scrivener does for long form writing. I mean real long form writing. 1 If you’re crafting a dissertation, a thesis, monograph, or a novel get Scrivener. Ulysses provides a well polished middle ground for writers, but Scrivener is much better suited for serious projects in my view. If you’re still writing in MS Word, do yourself a favour.
Another singular and irreplaceable tool. There are programs about that approximate some of its functionality, such as Keep-it, Eagle Filer, or Evernote in a pinch, but there is nothing that combines the powerful heuristic engine, security features and search capabilities. All of my data ends up in DEVONthink eventually.
I have all but forgotten how to type without TextExpander. By no means the only option for the job, though likely the best of them.
For the entire list, and more information check out the Eastgate WinterFest page. As far as I can see, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of when the promotion ends. However, the promo code is the same for all the apps: WINTERFEST2018
Sorry Apple Bloggers, long blog posts are not long form writing ↩
I shared an iOS Shortcut recently for opening academic journal articles via EZProxy. It’s a simple trick to short circuit the tedious cut and paste method . All it does is copy the EZproxy address 1 to the start of a url to give you access to resources via your own university library. Here are a couple of simple methods for doing the same thing using macOs automation tools.
Open Closed Access Journals with EZProxy and Keyboard Maestro
I am slowly coming to terms with some of the intricacies of macOS automation. Even so, I find Keyboard Maestro can be a little overwhelming at times. For one thing, it has a seriously misleading name, going well beyond the keyboard to hook into anything you could possibly want to do with macOs automation. The good news is you don’t have to be a coding grand master for it to be useful. This little macro is proof of that. Keyboard maestro can even simulate keystrokes, so using this method can even save you from hitting return.
Automate EZProxy with TextExpander
Built in Macros come standard with any decent text expansion app. I’m still using TextExpander, simply because there are no alternatives on iOS. As good as it is, the fact that I have Alfred on hand means TextExpander could probably be made redundant on macOS.
To make this work with TextExpander use the builtin macros to both grab the system clipboard macro and simulate keystrokes. My snippet looks like this:
Obviously, you need to copy the URL before you type the abbreviation so you’re a keystroke ahead with the Keyboard Maestro version, if that matters to you.
I already mentioned Alfred, which is easily as powerful as Keyboard Maestro. This would be a trivial problem to solve with Alfred, either by creating a workflow, or by using Alfred’s text expansion utility.
Another option is to use a clipboard manager. With Copied, for example, you can setup templates to transform the text you copy, and activate them with hotkeys. Similar functionality can be found in Pastebot. 2
Most university libraries, and some public libraries have an EZProxy address, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one you can access. ↩
Unfortunately, neither app has been updated in a while, so I can’t vouch for their longevity. Copied is still working perfectly for me on macOS Mojave ↩
I recently shared an iOS Shortcut for scanning citations directly from the barcode of a book. Handy as it is, I have another shortcut I’m getting a lot of mileage from when I write on my Mac. Both Zotero, and Bookends1 can add references to your library directly by scanning different metadata, including any book’s ISBN. You can obviously search for the numbers, or type them out by hand, but this little trick can add items to your library by using an iOS device as a scanner.
The shortcut works by scanning the ISBN from a barcode of any book and copying it to the clipboard. If the Universal Clipboard is working properly, the ISBN will become immediately available on the nearest Mac to paste into Zotero, or Bookends. I have also set it to copy the number to my clipboard manager in case the universal clipboard fails, as it does far too often 2.
This version of shortcut is configured to use my favourite clipboard manager, Copied. You could also use the equally impressive Paste, which is included with Setapp. Or any other app with a URL scheme that uses iCloud sync, like Gladys or Yoink. You could even use Apples own Notes App in a pinch.
Unclutter is a unique take on a drag and drop shelf app that includes a scratch pad, and simple clipboard manager. I have used Unclutter for some time as a shelf for holding transit items. It helps me avoid dumping loads of junk on my desktop. Unclutter a little different to Yoink or Dropshelf in that the shelf pulls down like a curtain from the top of the screen, but the concept is much the same. The notepad and clipboard manager make Unclutter a useful utility for anybody, but I have found a specific use case for it as a macOS screen shot manager.
For a while I used a handy little menu bar app call Shotty to manage screenshots. Unfortunately, Shotty’s user interface is small, so I find it isn’t ideal on the big screen of an iMac. The difference, depending on how you set it up, is Unclutter can stretch the whole way across the top of your screen. The display options can be set so that screen shots will display in an ad hoc gallery, making it easier to work with the images as you write.
Setting up Unclutter
If you want to set Unclutter up to manage your screenshots, first you need to set the storage location in Unclutter. You can leave it as the default if you prefer, and use that file path for your set up. Otherwise you can set it to a cloud storage location, which is especially handy if you work across more than one Mac, or you want to access your screenshots on iOS.
Once you know the file path for files in Unclutter, you need to make sure your screenshots are going to end up there automatically. There are a couple of simple ways to do that.
Changing the Default Screen Shot Folder in Terminal
The first option is to change the default location for screenshots via terminal. Open a Terminal window and enter the following, then press enter. Obviously, you will change the file path to match where your Unclutter files are, or you can copy and paste if you have it setup with DropBox.
Once you have set the location, you have to run the following command to reset the process that manages screen shots in macOS.
If you want to change back to having screen shots land on your desktop, run the above commands again but change the location back to /Desktop
Managing Screen Shots with Unclutter and Hazel
I prefer to set up a Hazel rule for this for a few different reasons. First, it makes it easier to switch it on and off if necessary, or if I want to change the location. The second reason has a touch of irony given the apps name is Unclutter, it is easy to accumulate a lot of old screenshots. They’re not as readily visible as on the desktop, so having Hazel come in and clean them up is helpful.
There are more tricks here if you need them too. If you want to archive particular shots and delete others you can add conditional tags with hazel, or even go by the name. My workflow for uploading shots to Wordpress from my Mac includes using quicklook to rename files with a Text Expander snippet. Once they are renamed, Hazel will grab them again and run an Automator action that prepares them for this site.
Unclutter on Setapp or the Mac App Store
MacPaw describes the Setapp platform as the Netflix for Mac apps, the analogy almost works. It’s unlikely you haven’t heard of it yet, but I have written about it a few times. There are numerous useful utilities, like Unclutter, included with a subscription. They add a lot of value to the heavy hitters like Ulysses, 2Do, and Marked. They have well over 100 apps now, and with the education discount a subscription will cost you five bucks a month.
I found Safari Browser to be a nightmare in its cross platform days. It says a lot for its progress that has become my preferred browser. The modern version is fast, efficient with resources, and proactive about tracking protection. Recent announcements also suggest that protection will continue to improve. Using 1Blocker for iOS and macOS , I can manage my browsing experience across Mac and iOS without weighing the app down with extensions. Add to that recent additions such as iOS type privacy settings, and the already excellent continuity features like handoff, and reading list. Put simply, using Safari is easy. It might not be as extensible as Chrome or Firefox, but like those browsers, Safari has a number of hidden features.
Enabling Safari Hidden Features
The other hidden menu is the lessor known Debug menu, which requires some basic terminal foo to reveal. The intrepid and curious will have a range of new preferences to tweak
Open Terminal: If you’re a mouse jockey click on the Go menu in Finder, and select Utilities. If you’re a keyboard warrior hit ⌘ + Space and start typing Terminal.
Once you have the Terminal open either type, or copy and past the following command:
Press return, then restart Safari. Presto, you have a new menu.
Safari Hidden Features to Enable
Until recently, this was the only way you could disable autoplay video on annoying sites. Thankfully, Safari will now allow you to set site specific preferences , content blocking, and so on. It doesn’t always work the way it should in my experience, but setting a global flag in the debug menu takes care of it. Under Media Flags, enable ‘Video Needs User Action’, or ‘Audio Needs User Action’, depending on your needs. You can also disable inline video altogether.
Other handy features include the ability to disable some of Safari’s energy management. If you have attention madness like I do, you might find your open tabs getting out of control. Rather than creating epic memory leaks, Safari will suspend background tabs that aren’t being used. The browser is smart about how it does this, but it doesn’t suit everybody. For some users, having to reload a suspended tab can be a real nuisance. For instance, if you do a lot of research you might want to keep all your tabs live. If this is you, the option to disable background tab suspension is under miscellaneous flags.
There are a lot more flags, some more useful than others. To state the obvious, you can break stuff by playing with them, but that’s half the fun.
If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated. If you’re looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.
If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.
Notebooks Reading List Workflow
This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.
It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.
The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.
Among the Best Note Taking Apps
If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it’s not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.
If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.
I have becme more and more reliant on DEVONthink. I have tried many other solutions for the problems it solves, with varying degrees of success. I was an Evernote user for some time, but privacy issues, proprietary document formats, and a variety of other concerns were enough to turn me away. Other tools have come and gone, Eagle Filer is probably the closest thing I have come across to 1, but the more you peel back the layers of DEVONthink the more you you understand why all those nerds were telling you to try it out in earnest. 2
For a long time a superficial reticence towards the DEVONthink interface kept me away from it. Once I finally gave function a rare victory over form, it didn’t take long to realise what I had been missing. That is not to say I have no desire to see changes to DEVONthink. A little self-preservation has started to inform my desire to see the user interface refreshed. One gets a sense the DEVONthink user-base is strong and loyal, and the longevity of the company no doubt owes a lot to the maturity of the software. However, I worry that too many potential users are missing out a powerful application for superficial reasons. And, who knows, those potential users might be needed to ensure the sustainability of software that I would now hate to do without.
Adding iCloud Sync
One immediate wish I had for DEVONthink has recently been granted with the addition of iCloud sync. This is a great news for a number of reasons, with the most obvious also related to usability. The iOS version, DEVONthink to Go has been a revelation, both as an advance research tool for iPad and iPhone, but also in terms of advancing the usability of DEVONthink in general.
DEVONthink’s sync end-to-end encryption is among its best features. It can even be used as a hack for syncing encrypted data to iOS via Dropbox. The one area it fell down was the lack of iCloud support. That was understandable, given iCloud drive hasn’t always had a stellar reputation for package data, but things have changed.
Setting up iCloud sync for DEVONthink is simple; which is the whole point. A user generated encryption key is still required to ensure end-to-end encryption, but there is none of the other rigmarole required for other cloud services. That means no need to nominate a sync-store name, no mucking around with server addresses or usernames. If you already have other sync-store setup, you can either disable them, or consider them redundancy. It’s not quite the same as a backup, but certainly can’t hurt.
If you have complex research and retrieval needs, or your simply a ditital pack rat. I cannot recommend DEVONthink enough. One of these days I will write it up in detail. Until then, I suspect the iOS version might be a good gateway drug for a potential user. You can read a little about that version here.
Eagle Filer is an excellent piece of software, but doesn’t have the same intelligence as DEVONthink, or an iOS version. ↩
Subscription App Store, Setapp, is one of the first things I recommend new Mac new users these days. From inception, the apps included in a membership were always impressive. Setapp can meet the software needs of a large majority of Mac users, and the collection is constantly improving. The latest improvement is the addition of excellent, security focused email client Canary Mail.
Setapp’s other email clients don’t work for me. Boxy looks pretty, but it’s designed for Gmail, and I gave that vice up some time ago. Unibox is a contact focused client, which might be useful if your workflow is focused on particular people. but doesn’t work for a curmudgeon like myself.
Canary’s thing is security. It makes encryption more user friendly by integrating with the MIT and Keybase servers. End-to-end encryption is automated when both sender and recipient are Canary users, or can be initiated manually when sending to other clients. It is probably worth reiterating the point in my post yesterday, about the recently discovered PGP and S/MIME exploit. Using encryption is simply a good habit, and something an app like Canary can help with. However, nobody should be relying on email for genuinely sensitive information. If you need serous encryption for messaging, use Signal. But, securing the content of your mail is not the only security concern with email clients.
Protect yourself from Email tracking with Canary
A feature I really appreciate in Canary is the ability to block email trackers. With all the talk of web tracking, I’m surprised I don’t see more about the tracking that goes on in email clients. While an extension of what happens on the web at large, email tracking is potentially worse for violating privacy. A 2017 paper from Princeton University researchers revealed the extent of the problem.
About 29% of emails leak the user’s email address to at least one third party when the email is opened, and about 19% of senders sent at least one email that had such a leak. The majority of these leaks (62%) are intentional. If the leaked email address is associated with a tracking cookie, as it would be in many webmail clients, the privacy risk to users is greatly amplified. Since a tracking cookie can be shared with traditional web trackers, email address can allow those trackers to link tracking profiles from before and after a user clears their cookies. If a user reads their email on multiple devices, trackers can use that address as an identifier to link tracking data cross-device
It goes on, if you want to read the whole paper you can find it here.
Beyond Image Tracking
The most common form of tracking is via invisible pixels. This is why I advocate for switching off the ‘load remote images’ setting in whatever email client you use. The problem is, blocking images is a blunt tool, it can render some email unreadable. Canary is smart about blocking only the tracker pixel, so it doesn’t ruin the design of html email. Using Canary in conjunction with something like 1Blocker can mitigate many of the concerns raised about leaking your personal data via the seemingly innocent act of opening a newsletter.
I am pleased to see Canary turn up on Setapp. I struggle to see how the proliferation of single-app subscriptions is sustainable in the long run. The outrage might have died down, but the fatigue is starting set in. Macpaw’s setup is smart, it shows in the quality of the software they are offering. I cannot recommend it enough. Especially when a 50% discount for students means over a hundred apps are available for US$5 a month.
If you have no need for the full suite, Canary Mail is also available direct from the Appstore on both macOS, and iOS.
Presenting complex ideas in a clear, and simple way is as undervalued as it is difficult to master. It doesn’t help that established presentation software is mostly dated, awkward, and time-consuming. Just as we have with writing apps, we have painted ourselves into a corner with presentation tools. Keynote can standalone as an alternative to Powerpoint. And yet, if you pressed me for a list of cool presentation tools, you wouldn’t find either of those. It would be a short list, but you would definitely find Deckset 2.0 there.
Deckset is a presentation making app with an entirely different user experience. Especially if you’ve only ever used Powerpoint or Keynote. It seems Focus has become common currency in creative software of late, but Deckset delivers it in an unexpected way. Taking all the fuss, and fiddle out of presentation design by creating slick presentations from text files. With Deckset you can get back to what you should be doing, focusing on ideas.
Presentation Software or Powerpoint by default
In 2013, Microsoft estimated there were 30 million Powerpoint presentations given per day. That figure is likely to have moved on considerably. Everywhere there are presentations, there is Powerpoint. Just as Word has become synonymous with writing, and other text-based productivity, Powerpoint is the de facto byword for slide deck presentations. At the same time, Powerpoint is time-consuming, confusing and frustrating. Despite efforts to trim the product, it carries the compound baggage of an ageing codebase, run through with compromise. Like most users of Word, I strongly suspect Powerpoint users are in the application by default.
Deckset has the pedigree to follow the recent success of writing apps like Ulysses, which continue to popularise a previously niche medium. A similar user base will find in Deckset an ideal alternative to Powerpoint, or Keynote. Even if you’re a wizard with one of those apps, I’d wager you could save yourself time, and get to the point quicker if honing the words, and not tweaking transition animations.
I expect Deckset users will be largely self-selecting. Then again, I’m confident that many potential users don’t yet realise they should be part of that group. If the point is communicating ideas, then eliminating friction in the design of a presentation is paramount.Deckset’s neat trick, is to build polished slide decks from the raw material of your content, the text itself. You create the presentations from Markdown files, in a text editor. The slide deck itself literally gets out of your way while you concentrate on the message.
Plain Text is Simply Plain, Text
Despite the growing popularity alluded to above, there still exists a curious irony around the uptake of plain text utilities. Many prospective users seem concerned that plain text software will be difficult to use. In reality, the program left behind is often more complicated. Applications built around Markdown are some of the most simple and effective apps you will find for any purpose.
I was latecomer to the joys of plain text. If only I could reclaim all the years flushed by grappling with rich text, word processors, and bloated slide-deck programs. A small amount of time learning to write in Markdown can save you hours upon hours. The obvious gains are from time spent dealing with constantly shifting design elements, configuring and adjusting styles over and again. But then, there are the more intangible gains from working with words in their raw form.
Everything written about the focus of writing in plain text applies to slide deck presentations with Deckset. This is what makes it such an ingenious app. Just the same, if you’re still unsure about creating in Markdown, nothing can make this point better than a quick demonstration. The beauty of learning Markdown is you only have to see it to know how it works. It’s not code, it’s a clever markup language that translates into code. With an app like Deckset, you can simply open up the template files, and you’re away. If you want a primer this is everything you need to know to get started using plain text productivity apps like iA Writer, Ulysses, or Deckset.
# Big Heading
## Slightly Smaller Heading
### And so on...
Use two asterisks on either side of words, or either side of a sentence to emphasise words in bold, like so:
Likewise, place an underscore on either side of a word, or sentence to emphasise in italics, like so: 2
Unordered, and ordered lists are intuitive. Each line starts with a hyphen, or numeral + period, like this:
- And, something else
- Make up an unordered list
1. First item
2. Second item
3. Item number three
If you want to turn a word into a clickable link, place it in square brackets, followed by the link itself in parentheses:
Explaining how to format a footnote is more complicated than making one, so it looks like this:
[^1]: This is a footnote
Or, you can do the same with a name
[^Bentley-Payne, 2018]: Something Completely Different
With this, you have everything you need to get started with Markdown. There is more you can do with it, of course. There also exists a few variations on the original syntax, with flavours that support additional elements. The differences are always minimal, but the foundations always remain the same.
User Experience, and Careful Decisions
Enthusiasts and geeks like to talk about responsive developers. By all accounts the builders of Deckset, Unsigned Integer, have taken a user-centric approach to developing their app. There is nothing more responsive than improving an app with user feedback. Much requested customisation features in the new release allow users to create and share themes, or tweak existing one to suit their needs. And, it’s not just about the nerds.
For a seemingly geeky app, Deckset is welcome respite, either as a Powerpoint and Keynote alternative, or as a first slide deck app. The user experience scales from simple automated layout based workflows to more bespoke, and sophisticated presentations — and all without sacrificing itself to complexity. One gets the impression that behind every feature lies a careful decision.
The considered approach is evident beyond the interface itself, with clarity a feature of the product on the whole. For instance, clearly Unsigned Interger recognise the relevance of Deckset to education. Among the documentation there is a deck outlining features inherently important for teaching presentations. Tabular information, equation formatting, captioned images and videos, it’s all there. As is rehearsal mode, speaker notes, and a PDF export function for class handouts. Taking the decision to leave the Mac App Store, means more flexibility in pricing. Deckset 2.0 is now available to education users for a discount.
Goldilocks and the Slide Presentation Tool
Having run Deckset 2.0 through its paces, I almost wish I had more presentations to give. It would easily make my lists of current favourite macOS apps. The revelation that slideshow software had become a sinkhole into which ideas themselves could easily fall persuaded me to all but give up on slide decks. Powerpoint is especially guilty. Although I find Keynote still has its uses, they’re mostly off-label, and fewer all the time. For the past couple conferences, I’ve gone analogue, delivering from a piece of paper to the room. Deckset has turned my head back the other way, by finally providing a happy medium.
If you want to take a look, Deckset offers a free trial. A single license is available for a one-time cost of USD $29. Or, if you’re an education user, you can request a generous 50% discount.