Free Agents 19 - Nobody Grades You on the Scaffolding

Every independent worker will agree that being organized is important. But should you adopt an organizational system? How can these systems help you, and are they worth the investment? In this episode Jason and I detail our own personal organization systems and discuss approaches to getting more organized, as well as tools to use to help in the process.

Sponsors include:

  • Sanebox: Clean up your inbox in minutes. Sign up for a two-week free trial and a $20 credit.
  • Freshbooks: Online invoicing made easy.

Apple's Green Ambitions

Yesterday Apple released it's 2017 Environmental Progress Report. The company has come a long way on this front in the last few years. They've got most of their operations working off renewable energy. They've also developed a robot that takes iPhones apart so they can better recycle. The big announcement with this latest report is the aspirational goal to, at some point in the future, make their products entirely from recycled goods. Apple wants to stop digging in the earth.

It sounds crazy, but we’re working on it. We’re moving toward a closed-loop supply chain. One day we’d like to be able to build new products with just recycled materials, including your old products.
— Lisa Jackson, Apple VP of Environment and Policy

I spent some time reading the various spins on this position around the Internet and I think it's a mistake to look at this as some hippie-lipservice from Apple. I think they really mean to pull this off and we'll see further steps in this direction going forward. Also, I don't fault Apple for stating their intention to do something they still haven't entirely figured out how to pull off. I think the fact that Apple is publicly working on this will encourage other big tech companies to do the same and maybe they'll even collaborate on finding solutions. Wouldn't it be great if they pulled it off?

A Few Rules to Avoid Getting Stung with Crowd-Funding

Three years ago I backed this project on Indiegogo that was a clever iPhone battery/cable/locator/camera trigger. At the time it seemed pretty useful and I was still in those heady days of believing that anything listed on Kickstarter or Indiegogo would necessarily ship.

Well it's been three years and I'd pretty much written off the idea of ever receiving my GOkey. A few days ago I received an email from the project organizer making it official by explaining he was out of money and unable to ship. He concluded the email:

"I feel terribly shameful for letting you down.
I am sorry."

I actually felt kind of bad for the guy despite the fact that he got my $69 and I never received anything in return. I would have been more upset about this in the past but I’ve become much more realistic about these projects in the last few years. 

The idea behind crowd-funding is a good one. Somebody has a great idea and rather than going to the bank, they get funded by their first customers. Unfortunately, you’ve got to be pretty discriminating if you don’t want to receive any emails like I just did from GOkey. I’ve got a few rules now for backing crowd-funding campaigns:

1. If it has a circuit board, don’t back it. 

It often seems to me that the biggest fails on these types of projects involved finalizing, approving, and sourcing electronics. I know that this was part of the reason the GOkey never shipped. These days I’ll only back something that has a circuit board if it is made by a company with already a proven and reliable track record.

2. Smashing success is often a bad thing.

If I'm watching a Kickstarter or Indiegogo that starts blowing up, I’ll take a step back and look very closely before I get on board. Being required to make millions of a product when you originally only expected to make thousands adds a lot of complexity and opportunities for things to go wrong. You may recall how long it took them to ship the original Pebble watch. People I talked to said a lot of this was due to them having to ramp up for so many units.

3. Simple ideas are also subject to peril.

Another problem showing up is intellectual property theft. A clever designer will come up with a new way to solve a problem and the project will get some momentum. That very same momentum, however will attract rip-off artists to start flooding the market with similar products, sometimes before the campaign even ends.

I still think the idea behind crowd-funding is a good one. If you see something you feel passionate about and you want to play a role in making it a reality, there's nothing wrong with backing it. Just be warned that no matter how good of an idea a product is, it still may never ship.


Star Wars Episode VIII – The Trailer, The Poster, and the Show Floor

Today was the Episode VIII panel at Star Wars Celebration and it was pretty great. The corker was a 2 minute teaser that LucasFilm is calling a "trailer". I don't see how you can call this a trailer though. It's just the barest of sketches about what's going on with our heroes and villains in the middle act of the trilogy. It's very well done and I like the fact that it conveys very little information about what to expect. The movie is still eight months away. Keep us in suspense a bit longer please.

About that Poster

I really like the new poster. Seeing old Luke so prominantly is awesome considering he had such a small role in The Force Awakens.


I also like the way Rey at the bottom harkens back to Luke in the original Star Wars poster from 1977. (I remember seeing that poster as a kid and not sure what to make of it. The guy holding the light saber looked more like someone out of a Spartacus movie than Mark Hamil.)

Also, did you notice how Rey's saber transitions from blue to red? The point of the middle episode is to leave us feeling our heroes are completely screwed. Between the trailer and this poster, I expect they'll deliver on that promise.

MacSparky's Celebration Multi-Media Extravaganza

So far at Celebration I've been watching panels and meeting up with friends. Today I plan to spend a lot of time on the show floor taking pictures of both the awesome and the bazaar. It's all here gang. Follow me today on Twitter, Instagram, and/or SnapChat for plenty of Star Wars content. I'll even be posting video with my SnapChat Glasses. Such a nerd.

​A Long Sunset for Workflow

 MacRumors reports that the Workflow team has confirmed in a recent customer support email there will be no further features but imply they'll do maintenance updates. Specifically, they wrote:

 "But just so you know, we have no further planned updates for Workflow. That being said we are continuing to support Workflow's current functionality and have no plans to end support, so let me know if you run across any bugs or crashes." 

We all knew this was coming. In hindsight, we should have known it was coming this soon. Whatever Apple hired the Workflow team for, it was not to continue developing Workflow. They've obviously already started on some sort of integration of Workflow-like tools in iOS.

However seeing it there, in black and white, that the app that I use repeatedly, every day, is now frozen feels pretty bad. I'm constantly writing new Workflows to automate working on iPhone and iPad. I currently have 53 workflows that I've written myself or boosted from somewhere else on the Internet.

Whatever Apple is working on, I find it highly unlikely that it will ship with iOS 11 that gets announced in just a few months. So my guess is we'll wait until iOS 12 to get the Workflow replacement, which is most likely 14 months from announcement and 17 months away from release. Will Workflow still function up until that time? I sure hope so.

PDFpen Version 9

Smile just released a new version of PDFpen for Mac. The new version adds several features including better annotations, linked files, better export options, a new "search and highlight" feature, line numbering, a new hand tool, better table of contents editing, and Asian OCR.

There’s a lot more. Indeed, so much more that I made a video for Smile.

Packing the Laptop

I'm about to take a little trip. Packing for me is usually pretty easy. If I can get by on a trip with one pair of shoes, it makes my entire day. I can, however, get hung up when it comes to technology. My current nerd crisis is the decision of whether or not to bring the laptop.

For this trip I've really been struggling with this question. There's a part of me that would love to leave it at home. I do a lot of computing from the iPad and I can often go days without needing a Mac. However, some days I really need a Mac. If I can leave the laptop at home, it means significantly less gear and weight. 

There is also the intangible part of this equation. I just enjoy working on the iPad. I like the relative simplicity of it. I like being able to use the Apple Pencil when the mood strikes me and I particularly like the way using (essentially) a piece of glass as my computer makes me feel like I'm living in the future.

Finally, there's a certain degree of geek thrill from putting yourself out on the ledge like that. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention and leaving the iPad at home may lead to some interesting discoveries.

Against this inclination to leave the laptop at home I always have to stop and think about what work I intend to get done and whether the iPad is up to the task. On this particular trip I'm worried because I'm still in the process of finalizing a large client transaction which means I may need to spend time with a significant number of files and some complex Microsoft Word documents. Microsoft Word is great on the iPad except when it comes to making changes to style formatting, which it can’t do. When I work on big transactions, there is lots of style formatting.

I do have the ability to remotely access my iMac at home so, in a pinch, I could perform any Mac-specific work from the road so long as I have an Internet connection.

The real problem is that we all have this list of things that are either impossible or a lot more difficult on the iPad than they are on the Mac. When deciding whether you are going to use a iPad for 10 minutes or a five day trip, we still have to go through the same calculus. Until the iPad can get closer parity to the Mac where we don't have to go through this mental journey every time we take a trip, the iPad will never reach its full potential.

As for me, because the friction points relate to client work, I’ll end up bringing the laptop along. What kills me is how close I am to not needing to bring it. If only the iPad filing system were just a little bit more robust and if only Microsoft Word were just a little bit more powerful. I hope people at Apple and Microsoft are getting the message.


TestFlight Improvements and the Developer Climate

Yesterday Apple released an update for the TestFlight app. TestFlight is a tool that allows developers to release beta iPhone and iPad software to testers. At any one time I'm running several beta applications on my iPhone and and iPad via TestFlight. When I saw the update come down yesterday I didn’t think much of it. 

Today, however, I have heard from several developer friends that are quite excited about these new updates. In particular, the new version allows developers to send out multiple versions of the application for testing. With the new system developers can test different versions of their app  to different users or even multiple versions to the same user. This allows for better testing and comparison. They've also extended testing period from 60 to 90 days.

Apple has made strides in the last six months in giving developers for the iPhone and the iPad better tools. In addition to these most recent changes to TestFlight, developers can now also respond to feedback, Apple is improving search optimization, and they've even become more flexible with the pricing models for subscriptions.

I would very much like to think this is foundational work to create an environment where developers are more encouraged to develop professional caliber applications for iPad and iPhone. Fingers crossed.

Sponsor: The New OmniOutliner 5

This week MacSparky is sponsored by the brand new OmniOutliner, Version 5. The new version adds several new useful features:

Saved Filters
Now you can filter rows based on different criteria: column values, status, note content, and more. You can save each filter to reference later.

Password Protection
Encrypt the documents you’d prefer to stay private. OmniOutliner can now encrypt documents with a password.

Distraction-Free Writing
Stay focused on your writing by automatically hiding the toolbar and sidebars in Full Screen mode.

Document Stats
Get a live view of statistics—rows, words, characters—as you’re typing.

Built-In Themes & Templates
A beautiful set of themes built in to the app.

There’s more including full screen improvements, dark mode, typewriter mode, and customizable keyboard shortcuts. They also have a new business model with the Pro version costing just $59.99. (I got it for half with upgrade pricing based on my purchase of version 4.) 

They also have a minimal, focussed version, OmniOutliner Essentials, that is just $9.99. Head over to the Omni Group and learn all about the new version. You may even recognize that goofy voice on the product videos.

MPU 372 – Workflows with Dr. Drang

This week our favorite snowman returns to the Mac Power Users. We discuss the evolving definition of "pro" and "power user" as well as new workflows for managing text, creative uses for Keyboard maestro, managing Apple Mail and the Doc dives into the iPad.

Sponsored include:

  • 1Password Have you ever forgotten a password? Now you don't have to worry about that anymore. Save up to 20% using this link.
  • The Omni Group We're passionate about productivity for Mac, iPhone and iPad. 
  • MindNode MindNode makes mind mapping easy.
  • Eero: Blanket your home in fast, reliable WiFi.

JD Powers Tablet Survey

in the most recent JD Powers survey, the Microsoft Surface edges out the iPad. This is not entirely surprising to me. I've been paying a lot attention lately as I go out into the public and work with my iPad about what other devices are in use. As I write these words, I'm at Starbucks with a person using a Microsoft Surface sitting next to me. That’s not unusual. 

This is yet one more data point in my argument that the big problem with iPad is software. If being productive on the iPad is too fiddly, users are going to revert to their MacBook (or Microsoft Surface). WWDC can't come soon enough.

Sponsor: SaneBox and Email Reminders

This week MacSparky is sponsored by SaneBox, the email service that can start saving your bacon today. With SaneBox at your back, you add a powerful set of email tools that can work in just about any email client. With SaneBox you can:

  • Wake up everyday to find the SaneBox robots have automatically sorted your incoming email for you so you can address the important and ignore the irrelevant. 
  • Defer email for hours, days, or weeks so it is out of your life until a more appropriate time.
  • Set secret reminders so if someone doesn’t reply to an important email SaneBox gives you a nudge to follow up.
  • Automatically save attachments to the cloud (like Dropbox).
  • Use their SaneForward service to automatically send appropriate emails to services like Evernote, Expensify, and Kayak.
  • Move unwanted email to the SaneBlackHole and never see anything from that person again.

Lately I've been getting a lot more serious about email reminders with SaneBox. When I send an email to a client or a business associate that requires a reply, I blind copy the email to or or Then I forget about it.

SaneBox keeps track of whether or not I get reply to that email and, if I haven't received a reply in the designated time, it gives me a reminder. This allows me to dodge the whole process of putting tasks into my system to track email replies. I've been using this a lot more lately and I'm saving time as a result. As seen above, this is just one of the many features available to SaneBox subscribers.

The list goes on. Why not straighten out your email in 2017 by getting a SaneBox account and bringing a gun to a knife fight. If you sign up with this link, you even get a discount off your subscription.

Ulysses Version 2.8

As time goes on, Ulysses (website) (Mac App Store) (iOS App Store) becomes more and more important in my writing workflows. At this point I'm using it for much of my books, this blog, and extended legal writing. I like the app’s clean design. (It won an Apple Design Award last year.) I also like its reliability and ubiquity on all of my Apple devices. Yesterday they released the newest version 2.8. There are several new features worth mention.

Touch ID Security

The updated version adds Touch ID security. You can now add a password to your Ulysses file and optionally open it with Touch ID. As a lawyer, I appreciate this. It's now going to be a lot harder for unwanted eyes to see my briefs.

New Automation Tools

The new version also adds some additional automation tools via URL callbacks. Specifically, you can now set a group title and you can read from an existing sheet. That second one is interesting. As I'm increasingly using Workflow to automate Ulysses, the ability to pull data out of the database will be useful. I need to play with this more before I can share some useful Workflows but they will be coming.

Better filters Statistics

Document management tools got a bump as well. Filters can now also be used to narrow down the library content according to negative criteria. For instance, you can look for documents that do not include the word “rutabaga”. You can also now see text statistics for groups and filters, which up until today was only available on the Mac version.

An Interesting Story about Icons

I met some of the Ulysses team last year at WWDC. We got in an extended discussion about, of all things, icons. I find the little icons in Ulysses useful as a visual guide as I'm working through my various banks of words. Here's a screenshot of my MacSparky folder and its related icons. 

I asked why can't add my own custom icons and they gave me a very opinionated answer. Put simply, they don't want anyone but their own design team putting graphics into Ulysses. As a compromise, however, they said they take user requests for additional icons very seriously. They explained they intended to regularly update the app with custom designed icons in response to user requests. 

While this approach can work, they’ve got to make good on it. Today they did with several new and interesting icons to help customize your Ulysses groups. I will note that while they have rain clouds, they don’t have a MacSparky thunderbolt. Hopefully 2.9.

“Super Important”

There’s a small tidbit at the end of John Gruber’s post about the new Mac Pros.

I asked about scripting and automation — whether Apple still sees scripting and automation as an important part of the pro market. Federighi: “We think scriptability and automation of the system remain super important.”

I'd agree. Power users and large company deployments all rely on scripting to get their work done faster. Craig Federighi’s affirmation about scriptability and automation here is re-assuring but, at the same time, Apple is sending some mixed messages:

  • Apple laid off Sal Soghoian, the biggest advocate of automation and scriptibility. Sal not only got users excited about these tools, he was also fighting the fight inside Apple to make sure automation and scriptibility got updates with the operating system and inside Apple’s own software.
  • Apple not only laid off Sal, they eliminated his position. As Sal explains, “Recently, I was informed that my position as Product Manager of Automation Technologies was eliminated for business reasons.”
  • Apple has been very slow about pushing automation forward on iOS. The current URL-scheme automation methods exist because of clever developers, not Apple. While extensions are a start, there needs to be more.
  • On the plus side, Apple purchased Workflow, a leading automation app for iOS. Some are worried that this acquisition spells doom for the future of Workflow. I think they are going to fold it into the operating system making it (possibly?) even better.

I agree with Craig Federighi that automation and scripting is “super important” but I’d also remind him that if that is the case, we need more than words right now. WWDC is just a few months away and it sure would be nice to see that Apple is moving the ball forward for automation and scripting.