Apple is sweetening the pot a little this year for anyone eligible for the education discount, in the UK or US. That means — in their own words — current and newly accepted college students and their parents, as well as faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers of all grade levels. Basically, if you buy a Mac or an iPad Pro directly from Apple, you will get a pair of Beats Wireless earbuds, or headphones [^Depending on what you buy].
Something I intend to cover in more detail, time willing, is how to use Markdown for academic writing. I made a quick case for using it for note-taking here, but I really need to cover it in more detail. If, however, you are already aboard that train, then you may be interested in checking out the latest poll from Tidbits on Markdown Editors. I might not have thought to cover BBEdit myself, but this is a nice reminder of its popularity.
Zapier posted a collection of tips for students a little while back. Some of these are more useful than others. One thing I am certain of, however, is that anybody engaged in college or university work — be it study, research, or otherwise — stands to gain ftom putting a little thought into how tools like Zapier, and IFTTT can help you along the way.
Setapp have added education pricing to their already valuable service. I have already written about the usefulness of the platform here. The discount is only available on an annual subscription, but the savings make for a compelling reason to pay for a year, once you have had a look at the 1 month free trial. Signup for Setapp here
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. 
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"
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 . 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.
Have I been Pwned
If you ever need to convince somebody to use a password manager, try playing them The Russian Passenger on Reply All. The episode covers 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 exposed. Try searching the email addresses of friends, family and colleagues on the site. It won't take you long to find somebody you know.
A good password manager is easy to use, and simple to learn, and yet convincing people to use one can be difficult. 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. It actually has the Pwned functionality inside the app itself. A lot has been written lately about changes to 1Password. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . Both iThoughts and X-Mind 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
Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice ↩
Nilay Patel over at The Verge has the details on the net neutrality debate. Regardless of where in the world you are, if you are invested in the future of the internet — and privilege aside, to some degree that includes pretty much everybody — then you ought to be aware of what all this means.
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…
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.
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, signatures or often repeated phrases.
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 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:
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:
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.
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:
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  Video Field Guide available.
Scale Images Automator Service
Combine PDF Images Automator Workflow