New Website Design and Features

Today I am relaunching techEDvance with a fresh design and some new features.

First, the look of this site is now much simpler with fewer distracting links and clearer fonts. The menubar above still provides access to the main parts of the site but some redundant elements of the previous theme have been removed. This new design (from themegraphy.com) is also fully responsive and looks just as good on the smaller screens of phones and tablets as it does on the desktop. I believe that the site also loads much more quickly now than it did before, though I am still doing some fine-tuning.

Second, I’ve finally started to make use of the logo that I conceived nearly one year ago. My cousin Danielle at Studio Delphianblue was kind enough to create the logo for me and, while it’s been on my business cards for months, I didn’t have it on this site until recently.

Finally, I am most excited about the addition of linked posts. I often come across things that I would like to share and some deserve more attention than I can fit into 140 characters on Twitter. I plan to start posting these things (through a new workflow which I created for this purpose) here on the site. Linked posts will now have titles that end with an arrow, and this signifies that clicking the title will bring you to that external link (in the style of daringfireball.net and countless other sites). This particular feature took quite a bit of WordPress fiddling on my part and I’m pleased with the results.

Feel free to contact me via email or Twitter if you have any feedback on the design and keep an eye out for more frequent posts on this site in the near future!

Project Based Learning in the Backyard ⇢

When my sixth grader Lyle asked if we could build a roller coaster in the backyard, I said yes — for two reasons. First, as a dad, it’s my job to help my kids do what they want to do. I believe that what kids want and what kids need are usually the same thing. So I’ve trained myself to listen to their ideas. I look for reasons to say yes, and I look for ways to engage and play with them. Like every dad, I know that my kids are my best chance at changing the world for the better. Second, I knew that a project this crazy-fun would surely keep the kids’ attention, and that there would be fantastic learning opportunities in subjects like math, physics, construction, safety, research, collaboration, and (as it turned out) even media.

This dad’s experience is a great reminder that project based learning can take place anywhere.

Fantastical 2.1

Fantastical is my favorite calendar app for iOS and it was updated today with new features including:

  • New app icon badge options
  • Snooze events or reminders
  • Search and add contacts or locations when creating new events
  • Upcoming birthday notifications
  • Improved colors and appears

All of this comes in addition to Fantastical’s excellent design, natural language parser, Apple/Google maps integration, and more.

A price drop comes along with today’s update, so if you have been waiting to pull the trigger on the best calendar application out there, now is your chance. For a limited time, it’s $4.99 for the iPhone version and $9.99 for the iPad edition.

“Presentations” by David Sparks

David Sparks (@macpsarky) has written yet another book in his Field Guides series. This one is about presentations and I think everyone from students to teachers to administrators will learn something new from this book:

Most presentations are terrible. That, however, does not need to be the case for your presentations. Author David Sparks, a trial attorney and seasoned technology speaker, explains how to create your own exceptional presentation. This Presentations Field Guide explains how to plan a presentation that will connect with your audience, the technical wizardry to create a stunning presentation, and walks you through presentation day to make sure it goes off without a hitch. The book was built entirely in iBooks Author. There are 44 screencasts, embedded Keynote files, audio interviews, and other rich media assets to help you make your next presentation riveting. The material is accessible to beginners and power users alike with a thoughtful, fun, and systematic approach to planning, creating, and delivering a stellar presentation.

Presentations is available now in iBook and PDF formats.

Overcast Podcast Player

Marco Arment (@marcoarment) of Tumblr and Instapaper fame has just released Overcast (iPhone), a new podcast player. The app is free, with additional features available through In-App Purchase for $4.99. Four features aim to set this app apart from other podcast players. While I’ve only played just downloaded this app a few minutes ago, my first impression is that that these four features will make Overcast a success:
* Smart Speed shortens silences to provide quicker, smoother playback.
* Voice Boost normalizes audio so all shows play at the same volume.
* Discovery helps spread the word about a podcast through recommendations and Twitter friends.
* Smart Playlists are created automatically based on priorities, filters, and rules.

My Home Screen (July, 2014)

Last July I wrote a post for David Sparks’ (@macsparky) website showing and explaining the apps on my iPhone home screen. Since a year has elapsed since that post appeared, I thought it would be interesting to look at the old and the new side by side to see what’s changed. and the new side by side to see what’s changed.


July 2013 homescreen  July 2014 homescreen

The obvious change is that I’m now running iOS 7 and this makes last year’s home screen (left) look terribly outdated. Last year I was using an iPhone 4S and I’ve since upgraded to the 5S which explains the taller display (right).

I replaced Forecast with Weather Line which offers a nice graphic look at temperature along with the hourly and weekly forecasts. I wrote about Weather Line a few months ago and explained why it’s the weather app that suits me best. I keep Yahoo Weather on the second screen (in a folder) in case I need to look at the radar.

Downcast got the boot after an iOS 7 redesign that didn’t agree with me, and I am now using Pocket Casts which has a clean design and still offers the features I need.

I replaced Notesy with Byword after Byword received an update that added full text search and turned the app into a more solid application.

A major absence is Checkmark. I loved this app last year due to how quickly I could create time- and location-based reminders. When iOS 7 came out, Reminders saw a huge improvement which made adding reminders easier. Checkmark also didn’t get an iOS 7 update until a few months ago – long after iOS 7 was released. While I tried the new Checkmark when came out, I’ve found that Reminders actually works better because I am using multiple lists and it integrates with the system nicely.

Two entirely new categories of apps have also been added to my homescreen: Habit List and Tally. I use Tally to track how many glasses of water I drink each day and Habit List, which I reviewed when it was updated for iOS 7, has helped me to obtain and keep some new habits that are helping me to be healthier (excercising, flossing, hydration) and more reflective (journaling).

My latest homescreen doesn’t reflect my flirtation with Appigo’s Todo, an OmniFocus competitor. Todo was on my homescreen until just recently and I’m in the laborious process of transferring my projects and tasks back into OmniFocus.

I continue to rely heavily on Tweetbot, Reeder, Fantastical, and Drafts (the app that I used to write this post) because they are among the greatest third-party apps that exist for iOS 7 today.

Finally, just because I don’t have an app on my home screen doesn’t mean that I don’t use it. Evernote has been moved to page two, along with Instagram. The Camera app is no longer needed because the camera launcher in Control Center shows up in the lower right corner when swiping up from the bottom of the screen, negating the need to display the app. I also have a number of other utilities like Scanner Pro, CameraSync, IFTTT, Day One, and shopping apps that I don’t use frequently enough to warrant placing them on the home screen.

I rely on my iPhone even more than I did last year, and it has become indispensable in my work and personal life. I look forward to the innovations that iOS 8 will bring this fall, and it will be fun to see what my home screen looks like one year from now.

Tweetbot Feature Request

Tweetbot (iPhone) is an app that is nearly perfect for reading and posting on Twitter. However, there is one feature that would make a huge improvement in how easy it is to use the application. I’ve shown it in the screenshot below:

Tweetbot Feature Request

See where that box is in the upper right corner? I want a compose button in that spot which automatically inserts the hashtag that I am viewing into the compose window. For example, I was obviously participating in #catholicedchat this past Saturday morning. I usually use the website twubs.com for this but my iPad and bluetooth keyboard weren’t accessible at the time so I was using Tweetbot on my phone. Every time I wanted to post using the #catholicedchat hashtag I had to touch the dialogue bubble in the lower left to return to my main stream, then touch the compose button, and then type in the hashtag. Placing a compose button (perhaps with a pound sign on it instead of a pen?) on the hashtag search page and then automatically inserting the hashtag in the compose window would be a most welcome new feature.

Mac Power Users #202

I was thrilled to hear my voice on one of my favorite podcasts – Mac Power Users – this morning on my way to work. Hosts David Sparks (@macsparky) and Katie Floyd (@katiefloyd) played an audio comment from me and talked a bit about the workflow that I created for recording classroom observations of teachers. You’ll hear me around the 18:25 mark on episode #202 but you should really listen to every episode of this great podcast for more ideas on becoming more efficient and productive with Macs and iOS devices.

GTD Shootout: OmniFocus vs. Todo

A while back, I wrote about my breakup with OmniFocus and what I was looking for in a new task management app. Sometime in January or February, I took the plunge and decided to move all of my tasks and projects into Appigo’s Todo Cloud.

Todo has a lot of features I was looking for: a subscription model that didn’t break the bank, start dates, a clean design on iOS, a web app that I could use at work on my PC, and a sensible organizational structure for all of my projects and tasks. Todo costs $1.99 per month, and is a great way to stay organized. It will work for most people and I heartily recommended it in a presentation I gave at a conference in Pittsburgh in April.

The problem is that I am picky. Really picky. No app has exactly what I am looking for and Todo’s flaws have become apparent over time. For example, I have primarily been using it on the web – from my PC at work – and this has presented some problems. The web interface works well for basic tasks but falls short on a few critical things. For example, there is a bug that causes repeating tasks to be created with the incorrect dates (which @AppigoTodo is aware of and has told me they will fix). Another problem is that, while it’s easy to add a task to a list by dragging, it’s impossible to drag tasks from the inbox to a specific project, which quickly becomes very frustrating.

Todo’s Mac and iOS apps have almost every feature that I need, but two essential features are missing. One of the most important components of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is that projects must be reviewed from time to time. OmniFocus has a Review feature (on the iPad and Mac versions) which makes this a breeze. It walks you through all projects and this is a great way to make changes, check off a task that was forgotten, or plan out the upcoming week. I didn’t realize how much I liked this feature until it was no longer there.

Todo has no review feature, and this has caused to me to adapt out of fear of missing something important. What I’ve done with Todo is give most of my tasks due dates which is something I never did with OmniFocus because I knew that I would catch them when doing a weekly review. What I’ve ended up with are tasks that continually show up as overdue that I keep putting off. With OmniFocus, I knew that I would catch these tasks before it was too late, but with Todo I have to assign a due date which just ends up stressing me out.

Another feature of OmniFocus that I miss is Forecast, which provides a nice display of tasks due (and, optionally, starting) on a given day alongside a view of the appointments for the day. I find this much more intuitive and easy to digest than the vertical view in Todo which doesn’t integrate with my calendar at all.

This is why, after using Todo exclusively for several months, I’m considering switching back to OmniFocus. If I do this I will miss Todo’s web interface, intelligent task parsing, and fast Reminders syncing (which is superior to OmniFocus’ because it works on both iPad and iPhone). However, I think I may benefit more by having the Review and Forecast features of OmniFocus at my disposal instead.

What it all boils down to is how using each app makes me feel. When I was using OmniFocus I felt like I was completely in control of my work and all the demands placed upon me. I trusted the system and it never let me down. I do not have the same sense of trust with Todo and that’s a scary thought. While I haven’t made the jump back to OmniFocus yet, it’s looking more likely every day.

Remove Default Reminders on All-Day Events

I try to keep as few notifications as possible from popping up on my phone as I find them very distracting. I do like to keep calendar notifications active, because they remind me that I need to be somewhere or am meeting with someone. However, I prefer not to see the annoying default reminder for all-day events, which automatically fires off 18 hours in advance if, like me, your workplace uses Microsoft’s Exchange server and you create all-day events on your PC. What’s even worse is that Outlook does not allow you to change this default reminder to a time of your own choosing. You’re stuck with 18 hours, like it or not.

Thankfully, the MS Outlook experts at slipstick.com explain how to solve this annoyance. This requires a bit of poking around under Outlook’s hood, but it’s worth it in the end:

This macro runs when Outlook starts and watches for new appointment items to be saved. When it finds one, it checks to see if it’s an All Day Event, and if so, you are asked if you want to keep the reminder. While the tweaks here work with reminders, it can be tweaked to do almost anything when a new appointment or event is saved. [Visit the site for full instructions on how to create this macro]

What if, like me, you also use an iOS device and create all-day events from your iPhone or iPad? Luckily, the best third-party iOS calendar app – Fantastical (iPhone, iPad, Mac) – has the solution which can be found in the “Default Alerts” section of the app’s settings. Simply switch “All-Day Events” to “None” and the problem is solved:

Fantastical settings

Problem solved! By implementing the Outlook macro and the Fantastical setting, I never have to see those annoying 18 hour notifications ever again.