Tools of the trade: Mac Apps

Today I want to call out a couple of Mac apps that I personally have found to be a great help to me as a systems admin and builder. These are all simple things that help me get work done.

Termius

Termius

Part of the reason I switched from Windows to Mac when I took my job was to have easier access to a bash terminal. But after a few weeks, I found that using the built in Mac Terminal app wasn’t very efficient for me. I had something like a dozen production and development servers to access on a regular basis, plus a growing amount of resources in AWS, and manually typing in hostnames, users, passwords, and tracking keys seemed unnecessarily burdensome. Before long I found Termius, which is a great SSH manager. Now I add my host information into Termius and can login into whatever server I need in seconds.

It can be used on a laptop for free but my boss was kind enough to purchase a license for me so I have extra features and can sync my credentials to multiple devices. That’s cool because Termius works just about anywhere, including my iPad and iPhone. The Mac app looks great, performs well, and also includes an SFTP client and the ability to save “snippets” so you can save and re-use tricky or frequent commands.

Cost: Freemium (60 USD per year)

Pro tip: Organize hosts into Groups and set a default color scheme. I use the classic black and green for my dev servers and a light color scheme on production so I can tell at a glance what environment I’m in.

LastPass

LastPass

Let’s face it, passwords suck. But until biometrics or physical tokens or something else totally take over we’re stuck with them. I had been using this app for awhile personally and my team invested in LastPass about 6 months ago. It has made sharing credentials to access some of our tools much easier (and safer).

Most people probably use LastPass exclusively as a browser plugin that can auto-fill passwords. But it also comes with a pretty nice Mac app if you want to get a bit more in-depth. Beyond username/passwords, there are templates to store lots of useful things: server login info, private SSH keys, account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

Cost: Freemium (2 USD per user per month)

Pro tip: When the Mac app is running, you can invoke a quick search of your vault with CMD-Shift-L . From the search results there are buttons to quickly copy usernames or passwords to your clipboard.

Amphetamine

Amphetamine

The life of systems administration sometimes involves a lot of waiting around waiting for a process to finish. Sometimes, you need your laptop to stay awake even if you’d rather step away. Amphetamine is an app that does just that. Just turn it on and your Mac will stay awake without needing to futz with power saving settings. 

Cost: Free!

Pro tip: You can choose criteria to keep your Mac awake: while a certain app is running, for a certain amount of time, or indefinitely. Keep this app on, then lock your screen (CTRL-SHIFT-Power button) to let a process run while you go take a coffee break//walk/nap.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

What’s In My Bag?

I haven’t written in a while and wanted to get something up so I’m allowing myself an extremely indulgent “what’s in my bag” post.

I switched a while ago from a shoulder bag to a small backpack, the North St. Meeting Bag. Going team tiny-backpack has done wonders for my back. It’s super light and balanced and fits my laptop, tablet, and other tech essentials (with my headphones attached via carabiner on the back).

 a small black backpack

I had been using a loaded 13” Surface Book 2 in my previous role, but when I took the sys-admin job I switched back to my older Mac laptop. The Surface Book was really nice but I went Mac for the integrated terminal, better portability and a general slight preference for the OS (at least in my work environment where Windows is heavily managed/limited by IT). So my current work rig is a 13” MacBook Pro (2015 model, core i5/8GB RAM/256GB SSD). It’s not the fanciest or fastest these days but it more than gets the job done. I take it into work and plug into a dock with wireless mouse and keyboard and two 27” 1440p Dell monitors. Also making the switch with me is a 10.5” iPad Pro I have from my work with the untethered teaching initiative at my institution. I do the vast majority of my work on the laptop but the iPad gets used for light work on the go (email from the coffee shop, digital white-boarding, notes at meetings, watching training videos, etc). Since I use Termius I can even SSH in to servers on the iPad if I need to.

Aside from my devices, I carry a Moleskine notebook, an Anker external battery pack, various power cables and A/V dongles, a few pens and Apple pencils, a back-up pair of earbuds (with the stupid iPhone lightning dongle) a spare power brick for the Mac, and a slide advancer for presentations.

The Master Becomes the Student

As an instructional technologist and graduate student, one of the most interesting things that happens to me is getting to experience tools or strategies that I work with professionally as a student. From the design and support side, you ask all the right questions and try to understand learners and instructional goals to design best-fit technology implementations and hopefully enhance learning. However, there is no substitute for the real-life experience of walking a mile in a student’s shoes by using ed tech tools as an actual enrolled, assessed, harried, busy learner.

Today I got that experience as an online class I am enrolled in at Western Oregon University’s MSEd-InfoTech program when we did an activity using VoiceThread. I have been using, recommending, and training instructors on use of this application for over two years —this was my first chance to engage with it as a “real” student.

VoiceThread

If you’re not familiar with VoiceThread, essentially it is a tool that allows the creation of “threads” of multimedia slides. Each slide might contain, for example, an image, text, a video, or a page of a Word document —really any multimedia that can be presented on the web. The hook is that people can then add audio or webcam comments to engage in a rich conversation about whatever the slide contents are. You can even record ink annotations that play back synchronously with your recording when others listen or watch.

In this particular instance, my assignment was to use VoiceThread to record comments and annotations critiquing design elements from a selection of about 30 slides showing different posters, magazines, flyers, etc. This could have easily taken place on a discussion forum, but VoiceThread afforded the opportunity for more personal and textured thinking and interaction.

I didn’t want to use VoiceThread in a “vanilla” way; that would be too easy. I wanted to push it a bit and see what I could do with VoiceThread. So instead of using the app through a web browser on my computer, I downloaded the VoiceThread app on my iPad Pro. I used BeatsX wireless headphones/mic to record audio comments and an Apple Pencil to make annotations.

Overall the experience was quite nice. Using the iPad app was intuitive for me as an experienced web user. I could swipe to navigate slides, and the multi-touch screen was nice to have so that I could zoom in on small images. The Pencil worked well enough for annotation. It’s better than using a mouse to draw (which is the only option in the web version). However you can tell that the app is not specifically optimized for the Apple Pencil, so it feels a little messy to draw with. One problem I had was with my headphones. For some reason after recording a comment via the headphone mic, I was not able to preview my recording at first. If I waited approximately 30-45 seconds on the preview screen, my audio suddenly began playing back. When I tested a recording without the headphones, I did not encounter this problem, and the recorded audio was on par or perhaps even a bit better from the built-in iPad mic.

Takeaways

Beyond the technical experience, I can say that as a student I got a lot of value out of being able to hear my peers voices and follow their thinking through simultaneous annotation. After spending a lot of time talking with the same people on a discussion forum all quarter, this was a nice change of pace, and one helped to enrich the sense of community in our class. At the graduate level, finding novel ways to facilitate peer interaction is a must. My courses are full of smart, insightful, funny people, and I appreciated the chance to get to know those of them that gravitated towards leaving audio or video comments a little better by listening and watching instead of just reading.

Tech Reflection: How I Use OneNote for Grad School

In this post, I wanted to share a quick reflection on how I am using technology to help keep myself on track as I pursue a graduate degree, in the same vein as my recent post on Grammarly. I thought this one would be easier as a video, so I made a quick screen recording using QuickTime and uploaded to my WOU Youtube account. Hope you enjoy the video. If you use OneNote or a different digital notetaking system, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Featured Image: By Marcus Pe via Unsplash

On Grammarly

I’ll be the first to admit it: my spelling acumen leaves something to be desired. As part of the generation who began writing via word processing at an early age, I learned I could always count on red squiggly lines to catch my misspellings. Things haven’t improved much as I’ve gotten older. In the connected smartphone era, adaptive and intelligent auto-correct usually fixes my mistakes before I even notice them. What’s next? An app lets me off the hook if I fail to form a grammatically sound sentence? As it turns out, yes.

I’ve been using Grammarly to help catch mistakes in emails and to give my academic and professional writing a second pair of (electronic) eyes for about four months.
Grammarly is available and most useful as a free browser extension. It can also be installed as a standalone Mac app and as an add-in to Microsoft Office in Windows. The free version checks for spelling and basic grammar issues. You can also subscribe to the Premium version, which is frankly pretty expensive but does add some extra functionality to the free apps. Either way, as you write Grammarly adds comments and suggested corrections to the margins of your work. An explanation of the grammatical principles involved and what you might do to improve are always available via a pop-out “card” that can be expanded with a click.

To give you an idea of the types of differences you might see, I ran an early draft of this post through both the free and paid versions. The free app caught all spelling errors and obvious grammatical issues such as incorrect conjugations. The paid version detects additional potential problem areas. In this case, Grammarly scolded my use of the passive voice, accused a paragraph of “excessive wordiness,” and reprimanded me for writing a sentence fragment.

In my use, I’ve found Grammarly to offer the greatest utility in semi-formal writing scenarios such as composing an email at work or writing in a forum in an online class, probably because the browser extension works online in the tools I tend to use for these purposes. In Gmail, Office 365 mail, on forums, and even when writing in the WordPress text editor, Grammarly rides shotgun and offers a helping hand in real time.

Where I tend to do more serious writing – in the Mac version of Word or Google Docs – Grammarly is not natively supported. So, I tend to write as I always have, revising and correcting as I go and proofing the document myself. Then I send the finished piece to Grammarly as if I’m submitting it to an editor.

This dual-use system seems to be working reasonably well. At work, the number of trivial but embarrassing mistakes left in my emails seems to be on the decline. When you’re always pressed for time and trying to keep many responsibilities balanced, it’s easy to overlook a typo, a repeated word, or a forgotten apostrophe. Grammarly lets me focus on crafting a message and getting my point across without worrying too much about looking unprofessional.

In my more involved writing, using Grammarly as a review tool keeps it from distracting me from the writing process. At best, by helping me catch repeated mistakes, it does offer useful feedback and an idea of bad habits to work on or misconceptions to correct.

I do wonder, though, if those worrying about the gradual erosion of foundational but mechanical writing skills are missing a bigger idea. Perhaps the need to learn fussy punctuation and syntax to the point of automaticity is becoming antiquated. There will probably always be people who enjoy preoccupying themselves with correct grammar, but there are people that enjoy horseback riding and churning their own butter, too.

In an ideal world, can the delegation of spelling and grammar to artificial copy-editors leave us free to devote our attention to the art of writing and the craft of meaning-making? Or does the endless march of automation mean that our ability to form a coherent thought without help from a computer is next on the chopping block? I don’t know, but as a harried grad student and technologist who feels like I’m typing all day, I’m willing to take one for the team and find out.