2018 Recap: OmniFocus 3 and my Fall Hardware Bumps

I’ve recently written to end out 2018 about apps that finally stuck this year and the most important book.

The two changes in my workflows this year that made me happiest were my Fall hardware upgrades and OmniFocus 3.

When I got into OmniFocus 2 last year it changed the game for me. To put some numbers behind that, I’ve kept track of 3,211 actions since getting OmniFocus, and completed 523 since the beginning of November alone (when my actions last archived). I keep everything that I’m trying to keep track of in OmniFocus, from new habits and routines, to whatever level of detail I need to break up a bigger project into. I use it to keep emails of things I need to do out of the way (with Airmail links), grading, and just having a list of the things that need to happen before I go home.

OmniFocus 3 came out first on iOS and then on the Mac. The best feature for me on iOS was initially being able to attach notifications that were unbound from due and defer dates. Unfortunately, this still hasn’t made its way to the Mac version, so its usefulness has started to dissipate. But the new tags feature and the accompanying custom perspectives have been awesome.

The custom perspectives feature as it exists today is exactly what I hoped it was back in OmniFocus 2. Now it supports a huge list of arguments, and nested AND/OR functionality that gets me the exact task list I need. With good tagging, this is even more useful (for example, a filter of items that contain the tags that mean something takes place at school, organized by date).

OmniFocus on iOS has become way more useful to me though, with my far more useful XS Max. I felt guilty spending this much money on a phone, but I’ve been holding out for it since its first leak in December 2017. The additional screen size makes it vastly more useful for keeping track of all the information I’m handling on my phone, especially in OmniFocus. Because I was coming from an iPhone 6 Plus, I had a ton of other upgrades along with that screen size including (by my likely faulty math) 240% better processor performance, 3D Touch, Face ID, and an OLED screen, among other things. (As an aside, 1Password’s new AutoFill features that iOS 12 enabled with Face ID takes all the friction of using a password manager away, and actually makes it faster than my bad password practices ever were).

I also picked up an Apple Watch this fall. They were a hard enough tech item to grasp from others’ accounts and using demo models that I really didn’t have a great idea of what to expect. I’m surprised by how easy it is to get drawn into the fitness features, and in love with keeping media controls on my wrist. It’s also changed the way I handle a number of apps (and finally gotten me into using Due to pester me to make sure I get something run down the hall for another teacher between classes or remember a special announcement at the start of class.)

Ultimately, technology is something that I do get enjoyment out of. It’s part of why I decided to blog, and it dominates my podcast feeds. I remember being a kid and playing with the calendar on Outlook wishing I had a job so I could have coworkers to schedule meetings with and use the availability features. As an adult, technology does find its way to make work easier, and some challenges become a bit brighter because of the tools I get to use to solve them.

2018 Recap: Apps that I didn’t ‘get’ in 2017

2018 has been a bumpy road, and there are a few things I want to write as a recap on the year. After talking about reading the Bible in a year, I wanted to focus on three apps that I’d tried previously or owned but wasn’t making very good use of.

Day One

I’d picked up Day One for the Mac back at the end of 2016, but I didn’t really get into it (or ever pick it up for iOS). When they went to a subscription model I originally wrote it off entirely. It was a post over on The Sweet Setup that showed me the role Day One could play in my digital life. To summarize his article, momentos, cards, and letters are easily preserved in Day One as memories, in addition to traditional journaling. I’ve also enjoyed using it to keep track of my life through my first year teaching and things happening on the personal side.

It’s still a bit hard to justify the subscription price, but I look forward to one day being able to print these journals, likely for my kids.

Drafts

I’d heard the Mac Power Users go on about Drafts quite a bit, and tried it myself without it really sticking. It was generally just a substitute for my OmniFocus inbox that wouldn’t get processed. With the release of Drafts 5, things started clicking much better. It wasn’t any specific feature contained within Drafts 5 (though I’m getting great use of Workspaces for literal drafts of things I write), but it inspired me to make other tweaks in my workflow (including adding Bear). Until I upgraded some of my hardware, it also served as a better dumping ground for OmniFocus tasks where I otherwise might let things slip, as well as recording things that would eventually go to Day One or other destinations. It does take a bit of added time to process down my inbox in Drafts, but it allows me to make sure everything really does get captured.

My hardware upgrades in 2018 allowed for Drafts to become even more supercharged though. As a method of capture, speaking into it on my Apple Watch is generally the fastest and most accessible thing I have access to. And I don’t have to be concerned about finding its fit in OmniFocus right away (lots of things wind up getting added to an existing Bear note or just getting put straight into its destination, like an email, from Drafts). Drafts also launched its beta Mac version this year. This makes it that much more versatile of a writing environment. Actions aren’t a part of the Mac app yet, so processing Drafts on the Mac is a bit clumsier than it is on iOS, but it’s freeing having all of my text accessible on the Mac.

Drafts works for me much better than the sticky note systems I see my fellow teachers using. As I process things down, I feel like I’m truly clearing clutter from my life. And as I continue to stress my OmniFocus system, it’s a major bonus being able to separate capture from my OmniFocus inbox many days. Now that it is free to use the basic version, it’s worth a try for anyone who makes major use of iOS.

TextExpander

I’ve always been a fast typist, and the idea of paying for a service to save me time typing was really never attractive. I had a free year of TextExpander from a bundle I’d previously purchased, and I redeemed it this year to see if there was anything to it. For awhile, even with its snippet suggestions, I wasn’t getting very much value, but with the start of the school year I’ve finally found its niche. TextExpander is valuable for me not because of reducing characters typed, but in reducing the amount I’m thinking when writing.

First it was with snippets that format date for files (yyyy-mm-dd) and for the way I want it to appear on printed documents (mm/dd/yyyy). This saved me moving up to the number rows and the little bit of mental energy it took to think through my desired date format and the actual day in my menubar. But I was able to quickly branch out with fill-ins for sending cookie cutter emails (like emails regarding a new lesson book or a blurb at the end of an email explaining to the student that I’ve cc’d their parents). It’s not just having my words thought through ahead of time, but when I’m filling forms, the way multiple parts of a snippet can draw from a single field (e.g. if I properly set up a snippet, I can have a student’s name filled in everywhere I need it after I’ve typed it once). I sometimes feel a bit self-conscious about using these snippets when emailing parents, but I also know there’s no shame in trying to cut down on the number of hours I’m working right now. I spend a lot of time torturing myself over phrasing in emails home, and being able to reuse my own words where I can may allow me to have time in my life outside of work.


TextExpander and Drafts both allow for JavaScript to make actions more powerful, and if my life gets any less crazy in 2019, I’ll hopefully find the time to learn the skills necessary to make use of these features. On top of this, OmniJS is coming to OmniFocus (hopefully) in 2019, and there are a lot of things in OmniFocus I’d like to accomplish that I think this will enable. I’m not sure what the best way to learn JavaScript is solely for automation, but I picked up a great deal on m1m0, though practicing some of these early skills has been hard.

2018 Recap: Bible in a Year

I had hoped to post more on this blog in 2018. After subbing, I had particularly wanted to share a lot of my frustrations for my fellow teachers with some constructive ideas for improving what subs are set up with, but as life stayed hectic, I no longer feel that it’s quite as valuable now that I’m in the trenches.

The start of my first year teaching has been an absolute adventure. I truly enjoy where I’m at, working with a staff that is flexible and always ready to help, and an administrative team that’s very supportive. My students are enjoyable to work with (and some read my blog!), and I look forward to growing through some of the challenges. Out of concerns for privacy, I probably won’t get too much more into detail about my school.

I wanted to write a few retrospectives on 2018, and the first of those I wanted to be on reading the Bible in a year.

One of my major resolutions for 2018 for a number of reasons was improving the balance of faith and the rest of my life. While I don’t want to sound as if I think I’m ‘done working on my faith,’ as it’s a lifelong journey, I do think I have gotten back to the place I need to be right now in life.

A lot of individuals in my church, and things beyond my control are responsible for this progress, but doing a Bible-in-a-year reading plan has allowed me to reaffirm everything I believe and receive the Holy Spirit, as well as growing in understanding of God. I’m inspired to write about it in no small part because of a post Craig McClellan wrote about his own faith on The Class Nerd (both the blog and podcast I recommend).

I highly recommend such a plan as a truly reasonable way to accomplish the task of reading the entire Bible. I felt that it was by and large clear enough to get through without any additional resources, though I appreciated some additional context reading many of the Epistles and books of the prophets. I was afraid that some books I would get bogged down in, but with a couple exceptions, I got the clarity out of this that I wanted.

Before I get in to some of the technical considerations of the plan I used, it’s worth talking about why this was so worth doing. There were all sorts of pieces of Scripture I couldn’t link together before reading as a whole work. There are all sorts of messages that I can now pull, and so much context behind verses used as justification for things that I previously could not. I feel that the ability to piece together one’s whole faith is best done by reading the Bible in its entirety. While it was easy enough to get caught back up after a busy week got me behind, I can’t imagine trying to take on something of this size without a good plan for breaking it down.

The plan I used was “Eat This Bread” on YouVersion Bible. I wanted a plan that took the Bible from cover to cover, and this was the closest I was able to find. It mostly accomplishes this (while oddly putting Chronicles at the end of the New Testament, and less oddly swapping John and Luke in the gospels.) It also breaks Psalms up into one per day rather than having you take the whole book through. While I like the idea of interspersing Psalms, it just paired the whole book down the line rather than picking readings that connected (e.g. day one was Psalm 1, day two was Psalm 2, starting over at Psalm 1 on day 151). The end result was that after I finished Psalms, I skipped the remaining Psalm per day. Doing the Bible in a year again, I’d love a plan that broke up Proverbs and perhaps other books in a similar way (though I preferred reading Ecclesiastes and most other Books of Wisdom straight through).

I liked the reminders and syncing between devices that YouVersion provided, and there some times I liked the ability to have a few chapters read aloud. I wished I had a better app for reading the Bible though in a lot of ways though. YouVersion lacks the footnotes I’m used to (at least for the ESV), though I’m not sure what the best Bible app I could get for the ESV might be. I’ve seen several recommendations, but most of them are a bit of an investment, and I’m not sure which one fits all of my needs the best. Though YouVersion provided a lot of great features specific to this goal, I hope I’m using something else the next time I try to take the whole Bible in a year.

Just like reading an eBook, I found myself making highlights here and there, but my most meaningful notes found their way into Bear to be more easily referenced and combined with other notes.

I’m planning on covering a bit more for the end of 2018, and hoping that I can get to some of the other topics I’ve previously mentioned on here. Christmas break is a good time to just sit down and write, and when my renewal receipts came up for my site, I felt a bit bad that I wasn’t posting more.

Managing Multiple Drives and Managing My First Year

I’m well into the start of my first year teaching now, and things are crazy. I wanted to first share a tip I’m using to manage some of the work I’m doing on my own computer for work (I have a PC assigned to me by my school, but I’m working a lot outside of the school day).

I have my primary personal Google account set to my “default” Google account in my browser. The primary benefit of this is that if I click a link to a Google Doc anywhere on the web, it goes into that account (which is the behavior I want). The downside is that when I’m opening up a new tab or window for Google Drive in the middle of work-related things, I’d have to click the account switcher, select my work account, and then wait a second for Drive to reload while closing the first tab. It’s a small inconvenience, but it adds up doing it a lot.

Instead, I’ve bookmarked the Drive URL that I have after switching to my work account. It should be something like drive.google.com/drive/u/(number for that account)/my-drive. Your default account is 0, then each one down the list is another number.

To speed up getting there, I usually launch the bookmark from Alfred, as I don’t keep the bookmark tab open for Safari. It’s a pretty simple solution to a pretty simple problem, and I could always use a different web browser for work matters (but I don’t want to).

App updates

OmniFocus 3 has changed the game for me. I was part of the TestFlight for OF3 for iOS, and I’m now in the beta for OF3 for Mac. Tags and better perspectives are helping me manage a ton of work. I’m a bit disappointed that OF3.0 for Mac lacks support for the advanced notifications that OF3 for iOS has, because I’m still taking out my phone to set a reminder notification for tasks. It’ll come in a point update that I”m already excited for.

I’m constantly restructuring my projects and tags to make them work better for me, but it’s not a time sink, it’s just a chance to organize better. I have so much on my plate at work that I think I’d have a nervous breakdown without OmniFocus to keep track of it all.

I’ve finally got Drafts integrated into my workflow. Drafts 5 added some really nice features, and it’s a great fit. Part of the reason it was so essential is because of some degradation of my iPhone 6’s speed (which will cease to be a problem within the month), but it continues to be the first thing I open when someone tells me something in the hallway that I can’t forget. Most of it goes into OmniFocus still. Because of how little email I compose on iOS, I’m still not getting the most out of it, but between updates to my phone or Drafts coming for Mac, it will only be more useful soon.

I’m planning to write soon about how my adoption of Bear has let me keep track of the documents and emails for rehearsals and individual class periods, why Dorico has won me over, and how I’m getting great use of Pages for making materials.

I’m Not an Apple Fanboy

For the foreseeable future I plan to use some version of an iPhone for my cell phone, a Mac for my computer, and an iPad for my tablet. I plan to pick up an Apple Watch as my first and future smart watches, and I continue to sink more money into powerful apps that would not follow me if I ever did decide to switch out of the Apple ecosystem.

But while I love their products, and follow their news closely, I am loathe to call myself an “Apple Fanboy,” and I think approaching Apple—or any company—as a fan is not a positive thing.

I subscribe to r/Apple, and listen to the Mac Power Users podcast and am a member of their Facebook group. I see a lot of posts on there, and miss very little from the RSS feeds of MacRumors, 9to5Mac, and AppleInsider among other blogs that focus on topics related to— or exclusive to the Apple ecosystem. On some of these sites (such as the MPU group), I see healthy discussion that allows me to get more out of my devices, and sometimes discourse over broader tech ideas. However, I see a lot of very different coverage from some Apple news sites or communities I visit.

First, I want to acknowledge something about the sites whose content I’m discussing. Apple is one of the biggest companies in the world, and there’s a lot of discussion from an investment perspective that happens. And it’s not just these sites I’ve mentioned that do it; I see a great deal of web coverage out there on any tech companies that is also market discussion. It’s hard to separate, and there’s certainly an audience of people who aren’t geeks who have an interest in Apple (or any tech company for that matter) that is purely financial.

Regardless of the motive for the coverage, I see a lot of content that seeks to defend Apple regardless of its errors. Recently, this has been discussion about the Macbook/Macbook Pro keyboard issues, battery throttling, or the market performance of Apple’s product lines in 2018. There is great effort to take legitimate grievances about how Apple has handled problems they’ve caused themselves and dismiss them. Obviously, in the broader climate of news coverage, this happens in far more nefarious and impactful ways than discussing dust under some keys, but it’s nevertheless strange to see sites dedicated to covering Apple exclusively dismissing these problems in their editorials.

I’ve also seen responses to accusations about Apple stagnating, that focus entirely on the sales of Apple compared to its competitors and making the wrong conclusions. When people complain, for example, that iOS’s notification system is archaic and a problem, Android’s fragmentation isn’t the answer. Or when the Touch Bar on the 2016–17 Macbook Pros is highlighted as missing the mark, Microsoft’s bad Surface sales [1] fails to solve Apple’s own failure. There is a current reward to Apple playing it relatively safe in choosing new features, but Apple would probably be seeing the same revenue with an iOS release that added some keyboard buttons to the iPhone that are arbitrarily locked to the iPad.

There are certainly cases to be made in defense of Apple in these instances, but the nature of most of the arguments I’m seeing is somewhat disingenuous. With the battery throttling, for example, it was somewhat blown out of proportion in its severity[2], but the people writing Apple a free pass on their deceptive comments and lack of transparency aren’t giving us a more accountable tech sector.

And while Apple’s received a few knocks of bad press recently, I don’t want to cast this as a 2018 issue in coverage. The same approach to issues like labor with Foxconn and Steve Jobs’s professional behavior is a problem. While I don’t think that a tech blogger ultimately should be held to the whole book of journalistic ethics, things are still out of perspective. And community members and fans of Apple products shouldn’t get a free pass either. Too much criticism that could actually improve products and services is met by a cadre of internet knights who feel that one of the five richest companies on Earth need their defending.

I don’t want to leave this post as some sort of hit piece on Apple itself. There are ways Apple has impressed me as a company, particularly by encouraging iPhone users to sign up for Donate Life, and the stance they took over the San Bernardino[3]. And regardless of their failings as a company, the products have still very much earned my preference. At the end of the day, I’m much more critical of Apple’s treatment by its fans than the company itself.


  1. I know this is the only story/narrative I’m sourcing in this article, but there are two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to individually call out any individuals who I’m criticizing in the Apple press for a number of a reasons. The second is that I know this is the single point in this post someone would be most inclined to leave an angry comment about.  ↩

  2. My iPhone 6 is feeling pretty slow these days, but I don’t think that older phones being less desirable is anything new. I don’t think any more iPhone users have gone out to get new phones due to throttling than Galaxy users have gone out to get new phones due to lack of updates or battery degradation that doesn’t see throttling. All the same, the problems with other phones don’t vindicate Apple’s missteps on their own. This sort of “look at this other company,” deflection is what I see 11 year-olds doing when they’re reprimanded for being on their phones. It’s not an acceptable standard for adults, much less multibillion dollar companies.  ↩

  3. While it’s easy today to see the positive PR that built, and be cynical about Apple’s privacy stance as nothing other than marketing, it was a ballsy move at the time. It’s easy to forget how much negative reaction there was to this in general.  ↩

How I’m Consuming my Feeds

I’ve been very occupied lately with the job hunt, but thankfully have found work for the Fall.  I’m excited to follow up with my previous post on using RSS feeds with my progress!

I’ve improved the actual experience of getting news through RSS by organizing my feeds into more specific folders.  I found through some searching that this is what most people do with their RSS feeds, and it was certainly a pain point for me.  I now have separate folders for national/world news, local news, sports news, music notation blogs, and tech sites.  I have a few particularly low-volume/high-interest feeds outside of folders entirely.  This makes my RSS a lot more digestible, but I find myself totally catching up with some folders (mainly the tech news) and barely touching others.  One of the ones that I’m opening less is the national/world news, which was part of the whole goal of switching to RSS.  It’s largely because the feeds in here are a mix of worthwhile content and insightful op-eds buried under content that exists purely to fill quotas.  

Reeder as an app has grown on me.  I’m still manually syncing by OPML (although a Workflow could probably help speed that along down the road).  Discovering how to actually use the “Mercury Reader” feature on iOS was a major improvement.  Most articles only preview ‘before the break’ as you go through them.  Mercury Reader simply pulls everything after the break to read in the app instead of opening in your browser.  It’s must faster than waiting for all the extra elements of most sites to load and closing the ad that blocks the whole screen on most news sites.  I was using it heavily on my Mac (where it’s clearly labeled in a dropdown and a shortcut).  I assumed it wasn’t on iOS until I discovered you can get it by using the zoom-in gesture or tapping the favicon on an article.

Despite RSS improving, I’ve actually found myself drawing more from Twitter and Reddit again, because I’m managed to improve those experiences.  When Twitter announced they were dropping support for their Mac App, I wanted a better way to manage a group chat I was in on Twitter.  I picked up Twitterrific for Mac on sale and really liked the experience.  (Interestingly, the Twitter API doesn’t let 3rd party apps access group messages, so it didn’t solve that need).  After a bit of time using Twitterrific, I decided to switch to Tweetbot which I’m still using on Mac and iOS.  

I was always content to use the official Twitter app, but using a 3rd-party app in 2018 has really improved the experience.  While there are a few features missing (polls, in-app Periscope access, etc.) it is a chronological feed.  I didn’t realize how much I disliked Twitter’s algorithmic feed until I had a chronological feed again.  No matter how many times I told it that I didn’t want to see “what I missed,” I still saw it.  I was using Twitter less, not in protest of this feed, but because I found the content less compelling.  Having my raw feed, I feel the same connection to Twitter I did when I first signed up.

I would wholeheartedly recommend picking up either Twitterrific or Tweetbot if it didn’t seem Twitter is putting another nail in the coffin for 3rd party apps with a change to the APIs.  I hope this doesn’t come to pass, but I’m not optimistic.  I’ve been told that by using Lists, one can get a chronological feed natively on Twitter, but that seems like a lot of extra steps to just check a social media site.  I see my Twitter use basically dropping off again if the APIs break.

I mentioned also using Reddit a bit more than I did.  This is largely due to picking up Apollo for my iPhone on a whim.  I’ve always hated the Reddit mobile site, but always been fine with the desktop site on mobile.  I didn’t think there was a need for Apollo to solve for me, but I’m actually a big fan of the app.

Until (unless?) Twitter kills their API, I see this set-up for my feeds working very well for me.  When that time comes for Twitter, I don’t know how my consumption will change, but I’m sure I’ll post updates here.  I’ve got a few posts cooking, including a “blog roll,” or rather, feeds I’m reading a lot of that I can recommend.

Teaching Scales

I’ve put off posting for awhile because I’m running into some specific formatting issues with the top post in my drafts folder that I’m hoping a friend of mine can help me with.  In the mean time, I thought I’d dig up some resources for other music educators I’ve been meaning to post.  Today I’ve got some handouts for students on understanding major scales.

Beyond just knowing how to play any number of major scales on their instrument, it’s important that students understand the fundamentals of constructing them.  Beyond the muscle memory (that is itself a valuable skill for performing most diatonic music), it forms the basis for understanding a great deal in theory, and specifically serves as the best foundation for learning other scales (minor scales, modal scales, etc.)

While I’m sure there are more ways to conceptualize scales effectively (especially outside of the concert band set-up), through my own teachers and teaching experience, I’ve encountered two dominant approaches that I’ve made handouts for:

The first is understanding them by the circle of fourths.  This is my preferred method for teaching scales.  The way I see it, it builds a more innate understanding of the relationships between keys, which encourages a faster mental turnaround.  Of course, there’s a lot of bias in that viewpoint, because that’s the way I learned my scales.  I was fortunate to my former high school band director—Steve Stickney’s presentation at the 2017 Iowa Music Educators’ Conference on warming up bands, where he discussed teaching scales this way.  He had some useful warmups in his presentation notes that he has graciously permitted me to share.  These are useful regardless of your teaching approach on scales.

The other way that I have been exposed to teaching scales is through a series of rules that focus on the relationship between the last accidental and the name of the key.  While I think this requires more steps of processing longer in the learning process, it does better allow a teacher to guide a student to getting their answer and formatively assess where the comprehension may be breaking down in a lesson more easily.

I know both seem a little wordy, but during my student teaching, I was seeing light bulbs go off for seventh graders who were reading the latter handout after having had scales explained more than once in class.  While I’m fine with my second handout as is, I’d like to update the first for students down the road.  It would probably need to go on to a second page, but I would like to elaborate a bit more and discuss how “adding flats” to a key with sharps is just removing sharps (and vice versa).

I hope others find these useful!  Feel free to drop a line in the comments or on any other platform on the side bar regarding these!