Alfred 3 is Out and It Rocks

I’ve been playing around with the latest version of Alfred 3 and I have to say it is yet another amazing upgrade to my all-time favorite Mac App. This app defines “Approductive”!!

I’m going to be testing out all of the features and plan to update this post as I go. Be sure to check out their blog post for all the new features and updates. But to get the ball rolling, here is the first thing that everyone should setup in Alfred 3.

Auto-Expanding Snippets

Alfred 2 had a Snippets manager, but in order to use a Snippet, you had to either open Alfred, type “snip”, then select your snippet; OR, you’d have to memorize a keyboard shortcut that would launch the snippet. There might have been easier ways, but it was never quite easy enough for me to go all in and use it.

In Alfred 3, they’ve upgraded this in a big way. They now provide, “Auto-Expanding Snippets”. If you are familiar with TextExpander, you know what this is. Imagine a text shortcut that you type anywhere on your Mac, like “ddd”. Whenever you type this, wherever you type this, you would hear a pop! sound and then you would watch the “ddd” get erased and then you could watch today’s date get inserted like this “2016/05/23”. It was like magic. Alfred 3 now provides this functionality, and it works perfectly! Here is a demo of one using “appp” to fill in “approductive.wordpress.com”:

 

 

app-wp-snippets

If you are on the fence about getting the Power Pack, let me be the one to give you the nudge and go for it. It is well worth every cent!

See more at https://www.alfredapp.com/

Finally, an ergonomic mouse that is easy to use

I’ve played around with different forms of input over the years. A Magic Mouse, a Magic Trackpad, and many other types of mice. With every new approach there are usually tradeoffs. Overall, I’m generally very satisfied with just about anything made by Logitech, but their trackball mice have never worked for me.

I’ve always liked the idea of an ergonomic mouse, but I’ve always found them either too hard to use, or they caused more pain than a normal mouse. About a year ago, I started noticing some occasional pain after using my mouse at work, so I decided to see what was on the market.

The Logitech M570 takes a different approach from other ergonomic mice. There is a trackball, but only for your thumb. The left and right clicks are pretty normal placements as a regular mouse, so your fingers don’t have to learn anything new. And the thumb trackball took me no time to get used to. Other ergonomic mice have taken me several days; with the M570, I was using it right away.

The mouse sits stationary, and I find that I can rest my hand on it comfortably. And, most importantly, no more pain.

Magnifying Lamp

I’m going to diverge from the norm here just a bit to point out something that I’ve had at my desk for the past six months that has come in surprisingly handy. While this isn’t an “app”, in keeping with the spirit of this site’s theme, this actually does make a lot of little tasks More Productive.

Before I go any further, I have to add a disclaimer:

Yes, this is pretty fucking dorky; but like a fanny-pack, its so fucking convenient. But the good news is, you don’t have to wear this one in public. This one can be safely hidden away at home.

Last July I took the family on our first trip out of the country (we live in the US). My kids were super excited to be “crossing the border” for the first time as we made our way into the frozen unknown of Canada (which turns out to be not so frozen and is actually very well-known).

Travelers note: always do a Google search for holidays and activities happening around the time of your travel plans.

We arrived in Toronto, Canada in late June, just in time for Canada Day, one of the biggest holidays of the year.:/ And while the timing could not have been worse, our experience could not have been better.

One of the treasures I found while in Toronto was a well-known shop for electronics hobbyists called Active Surplus. This place was simply amazing. Sadly, it has since shut its doors.

Imagine a warehouse where some baby boomer just threw away a ton of useful electronics components because they thought it was “a ton of junk”. And then imagine that some kind of futuristic robot automatically sorted everything into neatly organized bins in a way that you could casually and satisfyingly browse the isles, slowly plucking the fruit from the vines and tossing those unwanted treasures into your basket for mere pennies.

This was Active Surplus.

My wife stayed in the car (van) while I walked inside for a few minutes and I quickly realized the mistake I had made. I should have planned a separate solo-outing, not some “I’ll just pop in” kind of visit.

I hurriedly picked up a lot of great things, but one thing in particular that I found (and the point of this long story) was a Magnifying Lamp.

I picked up the Eaglestar Pro 22W Fluorescent Lamp, which has served me well, for about $50. This isn’t intended for an office, unless you work on electronics all day, but at home, this is extremely handy. You clamp this magnifying lamp onto the side of your desk and lighted magnification is literally at your fingertips. Some of the things you’ll love about a device like this is that it doesn’t require turning knobs or adjusting. You just pull the magnifying glass where you need it and it stays in place.

The Eaglestar Pro is now discontinued, but a very similar model (equipped with LED lighting instead of fluorescent) is on Amazon. It is made by Brightech (I’m not sure if Brightech is a new version of Eaglestar, but these are very similar models). They call it the “Lightview Pro“. I call mine the “Canadarm” because I had just finished reading Chris Hadfield’s book.

My “Canadarm” has amazing optics and really nice lighting, and I have it mounted on my desk right by my laptop. Being able to simply grab it and click on a bright light and see things under magnification has been surprisingly useful. I originally thought I’d be using it on electronics projects, but in the past six months it has served many purposes:

  • An amazingly clear close-up view when soldering. And it is super easy to position even while soldering. Something a ‘third hand’ doesn’t do well.
  • Reading part numbers on all sorts of things. Etchings, carvings, small print, etc.
  • Helping the kids repair their cheap electronics
  • Reading the numbers on battery cells
  • Removing unwanted splinters:)
  • And you can point it up at the ceiling for some supplemental lighting

I had actually been in the market for one of these before we took the trip, and when I saw the box, I knew I had to have it; part souvenir, part utility, but something I don’t plan to remove from my desk anytime soon. If ever.

The Ideal Dropbox Setup for External Hard Drives

The problem:

  • You have a MacBook or PC with a hard drive that isn’t big enough for your entire Dropbox account.
  • You have this shiny external hard drive that could hold your entire Dropbox account with space left over.

The solutions that DON’T work, or that I don’t want to use:

  • Symlinks inside your Dropbox. I’m not going to bother providing links to examples. They are everywhere. This. Doesn’t. Work.
  • Some third-party tool that assures you it will be around forever.
  • Moving your Dropbox root folder onto the external hard drive. Because if I left my laptop attached to my external hard drive all the time I wouldn’t have purchased a laptop.

The only solution that actually does work:

  1. Create a new user account on your MacBook or laptop. (you could even give it a username of “Dropbox”.
  2. Setup Dropbox, signing into Dropbox with your account, but change the Dropbox root location to your external hard drive.
  3. Don’t log out. On a mac you can “switch users” so that this account on your MacBook stays logged in and keeps syncing your Dropbox. Switch back to your user account.

Benefits:

  • You still have Dropbox in your home folder, and you still have Selective Sync. The storage on your internal drive is unchanged.
  • With your external drive mounted, you can now see all of your Dropbox.
  • I haven’t confirmed this, but I believe it uses LAN sync.
  • UPDATED on 2/13/2016: One of the commenters, Bob, pointed out in the comments below that you don’t need to worry about changing file permissions on any of the files in your Dropbox folder on the external drive either. OSX will treat any changes to files on an external drive as being changed by the current user. So there is no need to do any kind of massive file ownership change to what is on your external drive. Really great tip that I honestly hadn’t thought about when I started this project!

Un-mounting the external drive:

If you ever unmount your external hard drive, your Dropbox folder is unchanged. When you switch over to the other user account, Dropbox throws a nice warning that simply says “Your Dropbox folder is missing.”

Dropbox doesn’t delete files from your account, and it doesn’t go about creating duplicates. It simply says “I can’t work like this” and waits until you remount the hard drive.

UPDATE Spring 2016:

I wrote this post a year ago, and during that time I found a solution that is much simpler. It may not work for everyone, but if your entire Dropbox account has less than 128GB, this might just work…

I no longer attach an “external” drive, nor do I create a separate Dropbox user account. Instead I use a very tiny form factor USB drive. This USB drive stores 128GB and fits so snuggly into my USB port that I leave it in all the time. It is the SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB. I got it when it first went on sale for $29.99, and in the past three months it has been holding steady at that price range.

Since my entire Dropbox account is less than 128GB, I just let it all sync to the drive and I never have to worry about it. By the time my drive is larger than 128GB, I’m hoping they’ll have a 256GB model available.:)

2016-02-05 18.57.10

UPDATE: April 2016

Dropbox is working on a new prototype that might help, but it is probably a long-way from being available to most of us. The idea is that you can see the files you have on Dropbox without actually downloading them to your device. Imagine “Selective Sync” but still showing the files you chose not to download (very similar to how Dropbox works on an iPhone or an Android device).

Here is the article:

http://www.macworld.com/article/3061181/data-center-cloud/dropbox-wants-to-stretch-desktop-file-storage-to-infinity.html

Open Favorite Tweets on the Desktop

I’m a big fan of IFTTT.com, but one thing I missed was the ability to take actions on Favorite Tweets. This was a limitation in the Twitter API, but they’ve just restored this feature, which means I’ll be actually using Twitter again.

What I was doing before was using IFTTT to email me any links in Tweets that I favorite. I use this when I’m using Tweetbot and see an article that I want to read later. Sure, there are services like Pocket, but I seldom use them. And emailing them to myself is fine, but it too is tedious. So I set out to make this a little more automated. Turns out this is pretty simple.

Here’s the IFTTT recipe:

IFTTT Recipe: Open link tweets on my Desktop

This recipe just saves the link in the tweet in a text file in ~/Dropbox/IFTTT/Desktop. Running cat $file | xargs open will open it in the browser. You see where this is going?…

Next, I created a Folder Action Script using the AppleScript Editor. AppleScripts tend to be a black whole, IMHO, so I immediately pass off the AppleScript to a simple Bash script. Yes, its probably possible to do this in AppleScript. I don’t care. If you get it working, I might care, but probably not. You can see the AppleScript and the Bash scripts in this gist:

Four things you’ll need to do:

  1. Copy the applescript to ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts
  2. Copy the shell script to ~/bin and make executable with chmod +x open-starred-urls.sh
  3. Attach the Folder Action. In Finder, right-click on ~/Dropbox/IFTTT/Desktop (make it if its not there) and select Services –> Folder Actions Setup… With your AppleScript in ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts, your script should appear in the list. Activate it, and make sure that “Enable Folder Actions” is checked at the top of the box.
  4. Profit

Once you’ve set it all up, go favorite a tweet and watch your life fall into place.

UPDATE: I created another recipe, and refactored this a bit so that you can use the same script with a bunch of different services. Here’s another recipe that does the same thing when I star an item in the iOS app Reeder, using the Feedly service:

IFTTT Recipe: Open Starred Items on my Desktop

Magic Trackpad + BetterTouchTool

For the past week, I’ve been using Apple’s Magic Trackpad instead of my mouse. I’ve used the Magic Mouse in the past, and though there were some things I really liked about it, I found that I was frustrated with all of the accidental gestures that occurred. But a couple of weeks ago, I worked with my team on-site and several of them were using the Trackpad and had great things to say. Work offered to purchase one for me, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

After spending a week tweaking this thing, I must admit, I can see the appeal. It definitely takes some time to adjust, and wouldn’t be recommended without the free app BetterTouchTool by boastr. The first thing you notice when using the Trackpad is how much larger it is than a MacBook’s built-in trackpad. Your entire hand can rest on the trackpad with room to spare. But early in the week I found my wrist getting tired because, by default, you can’t rest your hand on it like you can with a mouse.

This is where BetterTouchTool helps out.

BetterTouchTool allows you to create custom gestures to launch anything you like. The list of options is overwhelming, so you need to start with one or two simple gestures for the things you do most.

Early in the week I went about creating a few simply one and two-finger shortcuts. But by mid-week, when my wrist was tired, it occurred to me that if more of my gestures were four and five-finger shortcuts, I could rest my hand on the trackpad more naturally. It wasn’t until then that I really became a convert.

So here are the settings I’d recommend for getting started, should you decide to give this a try.

First, go into Apple’s Preferences under Trackpad and adjust some of the defaults:

I turned off the “Look up” because I accidentally was tapping with three fingers and never used this feature. It just looks up the word under your cursor in the dictionary. Not useful to me.

Then go into the “Scroll” tab:

I uncheck the Scroll direction natural. The default mode has always confused me. Lastly, go into the “More Gestures” tab:

  • I really like the two-finger scroll between pages (for back and forward in the browser), so leave that checked.
  • I uncheck the “Swipe between full-screen apps” because I don’t use full screen very often, and because I’m using that for something I actually do use (BetterTouchTool took precedence on my MacBook Pro, but I uncheck it anyway).
  • Uncheck Mission Control since we’ll be using that Gesture too.
  • Unckeck App Expose (because who uses that anyway)
  • Uncheck Launchpad (because Alfred is a better replacement)
  • I leave “Show Desktop” and use that one a lot.

Okay, now its time to setup some easy to use BetterTouchTool settings:

Here are the Gestures I would recommend for getting started (these feel the most natural to me). First things first, you want to be able to open this preferences pane easily.

  • Single Finger Tap Top Left: Show BTT Preferences

Next, you want to optimize getting around the browser:

  • Four Finger Swipe Up:  Home (beginning of the page)
  • Four Finger Swipe Down – End (end of the page)

So you are browsing a website, and you can use Apple’s two-finger swipe up and down to scroll up and down the page. But using four fingers to swipe up or down take you to the top or bottom of the page. Very easy to remember, and this encourages me to let my hand rest on the trackpad. It also works just fine in other apps like Sublime.

  • Four Finger Swipe Right: Ctrl – Tab

This also encourages you to rest your hand on the trackpad. What this does is allows you to switch to the next tab by just swiping your hand to the right.

  • Four Finger Swipe Left: Command H

This one is different. You may want to change this to “Ctrl – Shift – Tab” so that swiping to the left switches to the previous tab. But I found over the week that I wasn’t using it as much. Instead, when I swipe to the left, I have it hiding the current application. This gets used a whole lot more for me as I switch back and forth between apps a lot. Which leads me to the next Gesture:

  • Five Finger Swipe Left: Application Switcher

This one isn’t used as much as plain old Command Tab, but I found that I used it a decent amount, so thought it was worth mentioning. It just pulls up the Application Switcher so you can jump around a bit easier. My left hand usually stays on the keyboard anyway, so you may not want to bother with this one. Okay, the last one that I really used quite a bit:

  • Five Finger Swipe Right: Command Q

Try this out and you’ll see why I like it. You swipe all five fingers to the right and it closes the application in a way that says “I don’t have time for this application”.

You can also setup Tap Sequences, which were hit or miss – they didn’t always work for me, but when they did, it was nice.

  • Tap Sequence [1], [2], [3], [4] – Opens iTerm

In theory, I’d just tap my four fingers in succession and iTerm would open up. The reverse (going from pinky finger to index finger triggers F6, the keyboard shortcut I use to Hide/Show iTerm). Because it wasn’t super-reliable, I didn’t end up using it all that much.

Its worth mentioning that all of these were setup as “Global”, but you could just as easily limit them to specific apps. In the end, its best to start with just a few that you can remember and build from there.

Cheers!