I am always searching for the perfect notes app, and the best way to integrate that into my workflow. I’m not sure I have found the former and I haven’t achieved the latter, but I keep trying. It’s ultimately a Sisyphean task, because there’s always another note taking app just around the corner which will constitute a new way of working with it. Nevertheless, I try.
With our proliferation of devices it’s no longer enough to have a decent desktop-based notetaking process. Access needs to be ubiquitous, and that means cloud sync. While a few years ago that would limit the candidates significantly, nowadays sync is the price of entry. When the iPhone arose and syncing was hard, the best option was Simplenote. This app used its own sync engine to provide lightning fast sync. I had a large number of notes in Simplenote, but it was convoluted getting them on my Mac, which required Dropbox and NVAlt – an app which I love the concept of but it never really grew on me.
Nowadays there are an abundance of options, such as Apple Notes, OneNote, Notability, OmniOutliner, and the list goes on. The problem with this is fragmentation. Taking notes is one thing, finding them again later is quite another. If I don’t have all my notes in one location, they may as well be lost. Plus that location needs to be available wherever I am and whatever device I have to hand. Spotlight search is useful, but I want to know where that note is, and I don’t want to have to trawl through search results to find it.
For the moment I have settled on Bear for notes. It syncs reliably across iOS and macOS, it supports Markdown syntax and can export into a variety of formats. It also looks really pretty.
Despite my use of Bear, I haven’t totally solved the fragmentation problem. I continue to use Goodnotes for handwritten notes taken with my Apple Pencil, DEVONThink Pro for reference material, and Ulysses for long-form writing. So stuff remains scattered.
Life can get overwhelming. Work to do, dinners to cook, kids to care for, relationships to tend. Trying to do it all can be fatiguing. I have found this to be particularly true over this current long school holiday break, where the presence of children and their needs are incessant, but the other parts of life still need to be managed.
Trying to balance it all is not easy, and I don’t believe there is any magic bullet that will solve it all. There are only ever going to be 24 hours in a day. So I think the best response to the pressure comes down to 3 main things1:
Scheduling: maximising the efficient use of time.
Accepting: there’s no such thing as perfection.
Breathing: maintaining mental health through awareness of the bigger picture.
Planning and scheduling can ease the mental burden. By making an agreement with yourself to do certain things at specified times there is clear evidence that time is being utilised to effect and things are getting done. At these times there is no need to worry about all the other things that aren’t getting done in the moment because at least you are doing something.
Personally this year I am trying to improve the structure of my scheduling. I am establishing days as either internal or external. Internal days are dedicated to working on the tasks I have recorded in OmniFocus, following the general Getting Things Done approach to task management. I will also use this time for internal meetings, planning and the like. External days will be available for me to get out on the road, visiting clients, following up business development opportunities, and networking.
I have taken my management of External days one step further by setting up a Calendly account. This service allows me to permit clients to book meetings with me directly, subject to my availability. Calendly knows the days I have set as External, and it knows when the slots I have made available are taken up, preventing them from being double-booked. Much time and effort was wasted last year mucking about with the to and fro of trying to coordinate meeting dates, so I hope this more automated approach will ease the burden.
I am the type of person that wants everything to go just as according to plan. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I have to accept the foibles of humanity and roll with the punches when things don’t go the way I wanted.
This is why planning methodology has moved away from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ — because nothing works as intended, so change the plan rather than pretending that perfection is about to occur.
In the chase for productivity at the micro-level, it is easy to lose context. Really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s highly likely that none of what we are doing actually matters that much. Now, this is not me promoting nihilism, because what we do does matter to those in our circles. What I am saying is that there are going to be few times where there is not sufficient slack in the timeline to pause; to take a time-out. In this moment, breathe.
Go outside, take a walk, talk to a friend, pray, meditate — just do something different and unrelated to the task. Taking a break will freshen the mind and offer an opportunity to perceive that larger context. The thing that was causing stress may suddenly not seem quite so significant afterwards.
Ultimately, having a sound and stable mind will allow a focus on scheduling and facilitate acceptance of what can and cannot be achieved. It’s a virtuous circle.
Because any good list worth it’s salt has 3 things. Not 2, not 4. Three. ↩
For months my home WiFi has been less than satisfactory. Dropouts, slow connections, complete failures to connect, router reboots required, and so on.
I have a slightly more complicated than average setup but it’s nothing so extreme that I should have had such annoying problems. I don’t live in an area with a lot of competition for WiFi spectrum and my hardware is all of the non-cheap variety.
I have tried different configurations from using my ISP provided D-Link DVA-2800 (the worst modem/router I have used in my life) as a single WiFi router, then in conjunction with the device I have used constantly for a number of years — my Airport Extreme ac (the tower one). I have variously extended this with an Ethernet backhaul to a second, older Apple Time Capsule (the one that looks like a Mac Mini) and I have tried an approach where the D-Link has operated in bridge mode with the Airports acting as the router.
No approach has been that great, and none have solved the problems I outlined earlier.
My pain points
The constant problems I faced with all of these different approaches were:
poor coverage, with 5GHz only working within a small radius, and failing coverage entirely at the extremities of my house and garden.
failure of devices to roam across two routers with the same SSID. This is a known problem with consumer grade WiFi that doesn’t offer intelligent roaming. My devices would hang on to a weak signal from one access point as opposed to switching over to a closer, stronger point. This problem was especially noticeable with MacBooks.
slow initial connections (again mainly with MacBooks) as they searched and connected to the best available signal. I have a feeling there is a software bug in there somewhere as well, because toggling WiFi off/on on the laptops would often then result in a speedy connection.
general frustrations with setting up. The D-Link interface is an abomination. The Airport software is much better, but it always seemed to take a bunch of clicks to get anywhere, and as with a lot of Apple stuff, it was short on diagnostics.
Given all these problems, I decided it was time for a change. Many of the podcasts I listen to feature ads for the Eero mesh WiFi product. This advertising is useless to me as far as selling me their product because they don’t retail in Australia. It did, however, get me interested in the idea of a mesh network, and helped push me into the arms of Eero’s competitor1.
In Australia, the best option seemed to be the Google Wifi 3-pack. I pulled out my wallet and bought a pack for AU$399. Not cheap but my hope was that lowering my blood pressure with less frustration made it a good investment.
Setting it up
In my case, the setup was not quite as simple as Google makes it out to be. This may be my own fault, because I probably overthink things, to be honest. I knew I still needed a router to transfer my NBN Fibre-to-the-Node (and then copper to the house) connection. This meant I had to keep my horrible D-Link to act as the modem. With my Apple Airport, I had the D-Link set to bridge mode and the Airport took on the task of the primary router and DHCP server. This obviated the need to ever deal with the D-Link software.
I went with this same setup with Google Wifi, but no success. It couldn’t establish a connection to my ISP through DHCP, as required.
To resolve this problem, I had to go back to my D-Link and take it out of bridge mode. I had to have it act as both a modem and a router (but disable its WiFi) and have it farm an IP address to the primary Google Wifi point. This is frustrating because it creates a “double-NAT” situation that seems unavoidable. Two devices, both creating a pool of IP addresses. The Airport wins here, as it was able to manage the DHCP connection with my ISP just fine.
Up and running
So now with this configuration my D-Link establishes the Internet connection while Google Wifi manages the internal WiFi and ethernet network. From this point it was smooth sailing. The Google Wifi app is quite good, apart from feeling very out of place on iOS due to its Android Material design aesthetic. It’s also weird to have to rely on a mobile app with no way of accessing the Wifi units through a computer. Finally, no iPad app – just a scaled iPhone app. Come on, Google, you can do better than that. While the Airport Utility looked prettier, Google Wifi gave me more control.
The network quality that Google Wifi delivers is excellent. I’ve been able to use ethernet to create a wired backhaul to the second device that sits near our TV, and I have some strategically placed switches to extend my ethernet network for fixed devices. That each Google point only has a single ethernet jack is a little disappointing, but not really surprising given the typical home market it is aiming at. I have the third device in my bedroom. This one is not using Ethernet backhaul, but leverages the ‘mesh’ approach that is the whole point of the system anyway.
Since installation the WiFi throughout (and outside) the house has been fast and flawless. I am mostly able to connect to a 5GHz ac signal and roaming happens silently and easily. I don’t notice connections slowing down or failing. Whenever and wherever I open a MacBook it establishes an instant connection, whereas it used to take ages and would still sometimes fail.
A Netspot signal-to-noise quality comparison may indicate I haven’t experienced much change in overall signal quality with the change to Google Wifi, other than the Google Wifi result perhaps being a little ‘smoother’ and without a single hotspot near the router.
But it’s the lack of problems with handoffs and roaming that are the real story here. That and the fact that I can more often use a 5GHz ac connection that was previously limited to inside my study.
You will have to excuse my variation in measuring points – this was not an entirely scientific method.
Overall, I’m happy with the purchase. Once I got everything set up and working correctly it’s been a hassle-free experience. The initial experience, though, was sketchy.
I’d love to know if anybody has had success having a Google Wifi setup connect to an NBN connection directly through a bridged modem like my Apple Airport could. While it isn’t really a problem, the knowledge that I have a non-optimal configuration with two NAT devices operating is annoying to me.
Would I recommend this product to others? Yes, absolutely. I also think that most other people would have a much more successful plug and play experience than me. This is the curse of the tinkerer.
An unintended consequence, I would imagine. Podcasts are global, so if you are going to advertise on them, maybe consider having a global approach to retail. ↩
With a hat tip to Gabe Weatherhead at MacDrifter who put together his list of favourite Mac applications for 2017, I am following suit.
Third party apps are what make a platform great. Despite the macOS ecosystem perhaps not being as vibrant as it once was, it is still served by a wonderful cohort of professional and hard-working developers. Even though I’ve bought their apps, I sometimes feel I owe them more because using their software is what makes using my Mac both fun and productive.
There’s a long tail of apps I use beyond those included in this list. Yet these I have detailed below are those I used extensively in 2017 and that I value and enjoy. These are the apps that I would most miss if they suddenly went away.
1Password for Families
Online security is no joke. It’s easy to dismiss password hygiene as tin-foil hat material, but when you think how much of our lives are conducted online, I don’t want a veneer of security — I want an ironclad guarantee. 1Password guarantees I can have unique complex passwords for every site that I maintain an account. I have no idea what any of these passwords are. But I do know my password to unlock 1Password. After that, it’s nothing but ⌘-\ to long me in anywhere.
I’ve waxed lyrical about OmniFocus before. Without this app there is no way I would be able to keep all my balls in the air. As much as parts of its design frustrate me, and the pace of its development is glacial, it works. Every day it delivers value by making my life easier. There are sexier to-do apps out there, but OmniFocus is rock solid.
My wife doesn’t have Launchbar installed on her MacBook. So when I try to use it, I feel lost. After years of use Launchbar feels an extension of the operating system and is completely engrained in my muscle memory. I switched to Launchbar years ago after Quicksilver became unstable and I’ve stayed ever since. I know others swear by Alfred, but I’m definitely a Launchbar guy.
I love this app even though I do have to work hard to find a truly worthwhile use for it. I definitely underuse Bear, but I really like it. For the emotional response, I’m keeping it in my list. But there is still a nagging feeling that between Apple Notes, Ulysses and DevonThink Pro, I really shouldn’t need this app. But it is really nice.
My key authoring application in which I write blog posts, work reports and other bits and pieces. For report writing as part of my day job Ulysses has this year supplanted Scrivener. For my blogging, Ulysses has withstood challenges from Bear and MarsEdit. It is a wonderful writing app and I enjoy that I have access to it through my Setapp subscription. If I didn’t have Setapp, I would subscribe to Ulysses directly without a moment’s hesitation.
The archive. The place I keep all my reference, research and archival material. I don’t use it for all that it can do; for instance I don’t create documents in DEVONthink despite it having the ability to do so. But for archiving, storing and searching, nothing beats it.
This is a cross-platform Java app, so it’s ugly as sin. It’s also about the only share market application available for Mac. Fortunately it works well and gives me all the information I need to track my portfolio.
I have never given up on RSS, even through the dark days after the Google Reader shutdown. I love the independent web and follow a range of sites religiously. On the Mac Reeder is the best way to do this.
PDF Expert has replaced Preview for PDF viewing and editing. Preview’s editing toolbars have always been inscrutable to me whereas PDF Expert makes sense. The bugginess that was introduced to the PDF engine in MacOS Sierra was the final nail in the coffin and ensured my switch to PDF Expert.
While the native Mac calendar app has improved, I still prefer having more power and flexibility to manage my calendars. While Fantastical always gets the glory as the sexy third party calendar option, BusyCal blends in and does the job quietly and effectively. I use this app daily. Its ability to save and restore different calendar sets give me helpful insights into my scheduled life.
I am writing this post in MarsEdit. MarsEdit is an app that I have always wanted to use, but never really have found a place for it. Now, with the new version released I thought I’d download it and give it a spin as part of the 14-day trial developer Daniel Jakult offers.
Recently I have been writing blog entries in Ulysses, which is great in that it uses iCloud for syncing and has clients for the Mac and iOS. So writing can be done anywhere. It also has a WordPress publishing engine so I don’t need to mess around to get my words on the web. Finally, Ulysses uses a flavour of Markdown which I am becoming much more proficient in using. Of course, I also already have a licence for Ulysses as part of my Setapp subscription.
MarsEdit is a much more traditional blogging platform. It defaults to rich text, it is Mac only, and it is more ‘feature rich’ than Ulysses. It offers a two-way connection to WordPress, meaning it can download an archive blog posts in addition to simply publishing which is the limit of the Ulysses offering. With my current workflow, if I need to make an edit to a published post I have to go to WordPress on the web and make the change. From that point on, my local copy on Ulysses is out of date; there is no concept of syncing – it just publishes. MarsEdit is fully sync-compliant so I can fix those pesky mistakes and maintain a single source of truth.
I do wish it had an iOS application, though. I imagine its code base is too entrenched in the Mac world to easily transition it to iOS, but it would be great to have a synced solution. This is where Ulysses excels – I can pick up the writing from where I left off from any device.
The other thing is typing in rich text. While ‘normal’ people prefer this (think users of Microsoft Word, which is rich text throughout) for blogging I do tend to prefer using plain text and Markdown. The code is apparent, I know what is happening, and it is easy to read. My experience with rich text transitions to HTML is that things go wonky. Of course, MarsEdit can edit in plain text and apply a Markdown filter, but it doesn’t seem like its natural mode of operation.
As I write this, I have been stumped as to how to add a footnote without resorting to pure HTML. In Ulysses with Markdown, this is an easy thing to do. In MarsEdit, it’s not apparent.
Using MarsEdit for this post has been an interesting adventure, but at this stage and for the type of blogging I do, I don’t think this app is for me.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I’ve been listening to podcasts for more than 10 years, way before they were mainstream. I used to load podcasts onto my work-supplied IBM ThinkPad1 and drive to work with it open on the passenger seat, playing podcasts. This was before I owned an iPod, let alone an iPhone. I think I may have been listening to Adam Curry at the time – there weren’t that many podcasts out there, and his was one of the first.
Since that time, I’ve never given up my podcasts habit. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Overcast, my current podcast player of choice says that I’ve saved 197 hours with Smart Speed (a setting that eliminates small pauses within normal speech). That’s 8.2 days saved via a very small tweak. So how many days worth of my life have I dedicated to podcast listening? I am glad I can’t find out!
My podcast listening trends have changed over the years. I had a multi-year phase with Leo Laporte’s network, listening to MacBreak Weekly, The Daily Giz Wiz and This Week in Tech. Now I don’t listen to any of them. The ‘indi’ podcasts I replaced the Laporte shows with have now themselves grown to be pretty big businesses in their own right.
Listening to podcasts is really a continuation of something I have done since I was little. Since I was about 5 years old I have fallen asleep listening to spoken word. Initially it was books on tape. Then I spent years listening to Graham Mayberry’s show on Perth local radio. Then I graduated to falling asleep to BBC World Service. Listening to speech has been a huge part of my life, and now podcasts provide an awesome delivery method far better than radio or cassette tape!
My subscriptions today
My podcast subscriptions today are a straight representation of my interests. I have a lot of technology subscriptions, a few basketball ones, politics and world news and some light entertainment. Looking at the overall list, I’m not sure how I manage to listen to them all. But I carve out time. Mainly it’s when I’m driving or doing some menial task around the house.
On micro.blog I saw recently that others had shared their podcast lists, including:
In Depth – Trialling this one, a couple of dudes talking Apple technology.
Mac Power Users – Not quite sure why I still persist with this; I never learn anything new and Katie Floyd’s really strong US accent is a struggle to listen to, but I haven’t unsubscribed yet.
Nerds on Draft – I skip the bit where they talk American beer, but I stay for the interesting take on technology. Is it just me who thinks that Gabe Weatherhead sounds like Kermit the Frog (no offence intended!)?
The Omni Show – Not sure this will stick around, as it is a podcast talking to employees at The Omni Group.
Release Notes – Two software developers talk about the business of software.
Tonight I’ve sketched out my basic IT storage system and the cloud services I use on a regular basis.
Ensuring that my storage network all hangs together with everything accessible from multiple devices and platforms while also maintaining redundancy through an appropriate backup strategy is not easy. I think I have my bases covered but it’s not particularly simple.
Despite the complexity it remains a problem worth worrying about. I don’t ever want to stress about losing data. Photos especially are memories that cannot be recreated so I really want to make sure I’ve got them secured in multiple locations, while also ensuring that an accidental deletion in one location will not replicate that deletion across the entire network.
Cloud sync services
My cloud sync services; iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive, all provide mechanisms to make data available across multiple devices. iCloud of course also offers additional photo sync services, and sync of device settings.
My work lives in OneDrive because corporations and Microsoft.
None of these should be considered a true backup because deletions replicate and there is limited version management. I see these as a sync platform only, and never rely on them as a backup.
I am annoyed by the number of cloud services I am having to use. It would be great to have a single sync service to rule them all. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to be happening anytime soon.
Other cloud services
OmniPresence is a service that keeps documents made by OmniGroup synced between macOS and iOS. I wish I could ditch it, but I’m not entirely confident that moving these files to iCloud will work, so I continue to have it running.
Adobe Creative Cloud is a service I’m not taking full advantage of because I still prefer the Lightroom Classic and managing photos from local storage.
I have a Network Attached Storage for mass storage of data, which is primarily photos and video. This is necessary because my local Mac hard drive is a relatively tiny SSD which almost always seems on the verge of filling up.
I maintain a few local backups:
a Time Machine backup that is stored on my NAS.
a SuperDuper! clone of my MacBook’s drive. If something goes wrong I can boot from this clone and run from that external drive, or recover files as necessary.
a USB hard drive that connects to my Mac, and with the help of Chronosync, ensures that photos are copied from my NAS to this storage that is seen as a drive locally connected to my Mac1.
The last resort
Backblaze is my backup of last resort. If anything goes horribly wrong, I should be able to retrieve data from this location. Backblaze operates to ensure that my MacBook, and any locally attached drives, are backed up to their cloud storage, which includes all the data that is also stored across the cloud services such as Dropbox and OneDrive.
All this might seem like overkill but there is no way that I want to risk losing data that I can’t get back. The little bit of effort, and the little bit of money to pay for the software and services I consider a worthwhile exchange for peace of mind.
This enables me to essentially achieve a backup of my NAS to Backblaze, a hack made necessary as they don’t support the backup of network attached storage. ↩