In general, I prefer reading posts with a narrow focus. Tell me about some specific aspect of some specific thing I’m interested in. Don’t ramble on. Don’t hide a tiny gift in a big box of packing material.

Agree? Well then you should exit this column of words sooner than later. Narrow this post is not. It’s about how I use my Mac to make actuarial educational materials—start to finish.


Actuarial exams take on a variety of forms. I instruct upper-level actuarial exams, which have 2000–3000 pages of reading on their syllabi. Imagine having to read War and Peace twice, except without the plot and cool battle scenes.

Actuarial exam literature is composed of textbook pages, industry articles, regulations, and even loose transcriptions of meetings. The reading is dense, highly technical, and often littered with mathematical equations.

It shouldn’t be surprising that actuarial students—the somewhat unfortunate title given to fully employed actuaries during their exam-taking years—are willing to pay for help. And so a micro industry has evolved for actuarial education.

What I do, more specifically

I create condensed outlines of the syllabus material, practice problems, and other study aids. I also record and produce screencasts where I go over outlines and work through examples.

I do this for three different courses offered by a company called The Infinite Actuary, a pioneer in web-based actuarial education. The craziest part: It’s not even my day job. Hey, I enjoy it.

This rest of this post is how I pull it off using a variety of world-class Mac software. These are the topics you’ll find in the pixels that follow:

  • Project management
  • Lesson creation
  • How I edit and manage the sea of PDF I swim in
  • Recording screencasts
  • Editing and producing screencasts
  • General file management
  • Miscellaneous tools

I also like to think of this post as a tribute to the software mentioned here—the virtual tools that make it possible to do the previously impossible: serve educational content all over the world without setting foot outside my home.

Project management

Accounting for all the individual syllabus sources, prioritizing which pieces of which courses I work on any given day, and managing this compartment of my life among my many others requires solid project (and self) management tools.

PE readers will not be surprised to hear that I have an entire OmniFocus folder full of projects designed to keep me on task and keep me oriented.

Generally I treat each course (offered in both the spring and fall) as a project and then create sub-projects within each course ordered sequentially. I like thinking of courses as finite, goal-oriented projects. I prefer having fewer projects and more sub-projects instead of many small projects.

In my mind, OmniFocus projects are digital representations of goals. The fewer goals I have, the more of my finite attention budget I can allocate to any given one. Having fewer projects also forces me to recognize that I can only do things on action at a time.

Put another way, it’s easier to prioritize actions within projects than it is to prioritize projects.

With a course, my chief goal is to complete each task required for the course in a reasonable amount of time before the exam date. Once the tasks are all complete, the project is complete. (Of course, email continues right up to the date of the exam.)

As useful as OmniFocus is for creating a hierarchical paths, it’s not a complete solution for this work. I use OmniOutliner for more granular project management where my “task list” is part reference and part checklist.

For example, when tackling a new syllabus, I’ll list all new syllabus articles and textbooks, then add multiple columns with checkboxes and drop-down lists that help me keep track of whether

  • The item is in my possession
  • I’ve drafted an outline of it
  • I’ve outsourced outlining to a virtual assistant (and which one)
  • I’ve completed or reviewed the outline
  • I’ve recorded the screencast for the outline
  • I’ve edited the screencast
  • I’ve posted the screencast to the online course

Using OmniOutliner for project management has a lot of advantages:

  • It reflects that there are multiple tasks anchored to a single item: the syllabus source material
  • Important information doesn’t disappear when I check it off
  • I can see where things stand at a glance in a concise grid
  • I can link to PDF and other files associated with each syllabus item
  • I can quickly fold and unfold sections making it possible to “zoom” in and out over vast quantities of information

I also use OmniOutliner to build out the entire course structure by section, which itself becomes a checklist that helps ensure everything has been posted online.

Since OmniOutliner and OmniFocus both speak OPML, I can easily paste back and forth. This makes it really easy to build detailed sub-projects in OmniFocus from material in my OmniOutliner files.

So all that to say, thank you, OmniGroup for making these amazing products. They work so much better than the clumsy spreadsheet approach I used to take.

Lesson creation

All study guides and handouts are posted to the course as PDF. I create these PDF using several applications.

For some courses, where I collaborate with other instructors, it’s easiest to use what they use. This often means Microsoft Word, which is my least favorite tool for creating PDF. The interface is jerky and very crowded making it a suboptimal choice on my 13" MacBook Air screen.

Pages ’09 behaves much better when having to share the screen with other windows, and I’ve used Pages heavily in my course work.

But of all the PDF creation tools I’ve used, my favorite by far is LaTeX (pronounced lah-tek). LaTeX offers many advantages over WYSIWYG word processors:

  • The document creation phase happens in plain text. There’s no time lost trying to un-gunk styles gone awry or fighting bizarre indentations in Word or mixing formats when pasting items.

  • Text editor windows are highly malleable. They fit anywhere, allowing me to allocate more screen space to PDF and other reference materials.

  • In WYSIWYG word processors, it’s miserable trying to guess where Greek and math symbols might be hiding. In an equation editor, you have to visually search through menus and digital palettes looking for, say, sigma. In LaTeX, you just type \sigma. In general, writing math is very natural and obvious in LaTeX. Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll never mess with equation editors again.

  • LaTeX offers tight control over document appearance. It’s always crystal clear in the code whether a heading is part of a section or sub-section and where it will appear in the table of contents.

  • LaTeX is completely free, open-source, and highly customizable.

I use TextExpander heavily when writing LaTeX. I prefix all of my LaTeX snippets with ll. TextExpander allows me to generate bits of LaTeX code quickly—from commonly typed math and Greek symbols to special list syntaxes to full document preambles.

My LaTeX editor of choice is TextMate. The LaTeX bundle that comes in the default installation of TextMate is simply awesome. It’s loaded with useful shortcuts that make writing LaTeX code a breeze.

Best of all, you can even typeset your document (Cmd-R) right within TextMate and immediately get a PDF. All you have to do is install Skim, the nearly-never-talked-about free Mac PDF viewer, and link it to TextMate (see this great tutorial).

I typeset frequently as I write LaTeX to make sure I’m getting the results I intend. The TextMate-Skim combo makes this process extremely efficient. You can even Cmd-Shift-Click a PDF line in Skim, and it will take you directly to that line in your LaTeX document in TextMate. Extremely useful for when editing a large PDF.

You may be thinking, “if LaTeX is text-based, that probably means I can’t include images and diagrams, right?” Not right. LaTeX is extremely powerful, and you can even write code to generate images. However, I often use Pages or Keynote to make diagrams, save them as .png files, then insert them using \includegraphics{image.png}. You can even scale them. Very easy.

Learning LaTeX takes some time. And it can be a little intimidating at first. But LaTeX is so well documented online, you can get answers to questions with very little searching.

If you’re willing to learn it, you’ll probably come the same conclusion I did: LaTeX can do everything a WYSIWYG word processor can do (and more) and do it better. For large technical documents, there’s really no substitute.

PDF editing

It’s difficult to convey the quantity of PDF files I juggle in these courses. I create study guides that are hundreds of pages long, there are many handouts that go with video lessons, and all of the syllabus readings come to me as PDF.

There are many miscellaneous edits I make to PDF on a regular basis.

PDFpen is indispensable. Sometimes I need to blend my PDFs with PDFs created by other instructors. In these situations, PDFpen is very useful for deleting, re-ordering, and adding pages to PDFs. I also use features like ‘Search and Redact’ to strip out footers and other bits of text when the need arises. PDFpen also lets me add custom page numbers.

If I’m lucky, the PDF syllabus readings have selectable text, but many of them are scans of textbook pages and paper-based journals. PDFpen has been a savior because I can OCR my imaged PDF making them searchable and selectable.

When I need to combine a large number of PDF files into a single large PDF, I use a handy service based on this fantastic tutorial. Automator has great PDF support.

Screencast recording

Before the advent of web-based video, actuarial students had no choice but to pilgrimage to a large city at a very specific time of year to hear an instructor speak for three to seven solid days. Though these seminars were brief, they were valuable because it was a student’s lone opportunity to have material taught to them in a more traditional classroom environment. The rest of the time, students were teaching themselves.

I haven’t spoken at a live seminar since 2008. Screencasting has supplanted the need for me to travel.

When I first started doing screencasts for actuarial exams, I used the Windows version of Camtasia on a tablet PC. It made it possible to annotate PDF as I spoke, and it wasn’t a bad setup.

But as Mac screencasting tools kept getting better and as the Mac itself kept getting faster and useful for everything else I was doing in this workflow, it only made sense to ditch the tablet PC and go all-Mac.

Today, everything happens on my Mac. My screencasting setup involves a very useful cast of software and hardware:

I love to work in ScreenFlow more every time I use it. When OS X Lion arrived, things really came together because I could put Preview or PDFpen in full-screen mode, which, to me, just looks great while recording. It also minimizes the need crop the final product (since all I want the students to see are the contents of the PDF, not my Mac’s menu bars and other OS X elements).

Generally I prefer PDFpen over Preview while screencasting a PDF lesson. There are many more annotation tools in PDFpen. In particular, I can draw/write freehand with a Bamboo Pen in PDFpen.

I also prefer using my Magic Mouse over the trackpad when doing screencasts. I find that I can be a lot more precise when pointing at and highlighting material. Interestingly, though, I find it more natural to scroll through PDF using the trackpad on my MacBook Air.

I also use a program called SketchBookExpress when I’m doing heavy handwriting (e.g. a lot of math equations). SketchBookExpress renders Bamboo Pen input really well. When I’m done, I can easily drop the resulting image into my PDF lesson so that it’s available as a handout.

The iPad mentioned above has also really streamlined this workflow. I used to print out notes for reference while recording. Today, I can keep everything digital and view it in Dropbox, GoodReader, or OmniOutliner on my iPad.

The Blue Yeti microphone is a fairly new addition for me. I had been using a Samson CU10, but I never could get the audio level and quality from it I wanted. The Yeti does a much better job picking up my voice. I keep the volume and gain at 50 percent, and I use the cardioid setting while recording.

Screencast editing and production

ScreenFlow is a great at recording video and audio, but, in my opinion, it really excels at editing screencasts. The interface is simple and powerful.

I really believe that I feel more relaxed and confident while recording screencasts because I know how easy it is to clip out mistakes and fix things within ScreenFlow. Cropping is so easy and intuitive: just drag the right or left side of video clip to make it smaller. Splitting a clip is easy, too: just press T.

ScreenFlow offers all kinds of easy-to-implement effects that make screencasts look more professional. Things like screen transitions, annotations, zooming in/out, and more can make the difference between a dull, static video and one that’s enjoyable to watch.

Though ScreenFlow is intended for screencasting, it’s quickly becoming my all-purpose video editor. I like how I can drag in and integrate other media. For example, sometimes I need to take older videos and blend them with new videos. ScreenFlow makes it easy to split the video from the audio in an existing .mp4 file so that you can do anything you want with it.

When exporting videos from ScreenFlow, I basically use the default video settings for the web preset. For audio, I set quality to ‘Best’ and the target bit rate to 128 kbps. In my experience, I get the best audio output with these settings.

ScreenFlow outputs a .mov file, but the server that hosts my videos requires an .mp4 upload. I use Hazel to change the extension automatically.

There are only two things on my feature wish list for ScreenFlow:

  1. The ability save export settings
  2. The ability to export multiple videos batch

Just in the last two months, I’ve recorded over 20 screencasts. It would be nice if I could do more of the production in batch.

File management utilities

All of this work generates and involves a lot of files. I store everything other than video files in Dropbox.

To find files quickly, I rely heavily on LaunchBar and Spotlight.

Path Finder is easily my favorite file browser:

  • The dual-pane UI and tabbed browsing is extremely useful when I’m working out of multiple folders at once (you can even save tab sets)
  • I can quickly filter what shows in any given folder using Path Finder’s search field
  • Path Finder retains the last search term in each folder so that I can maintain filtered folder views as I go from folder to folder
  • The drop stack is super useful for moving files around
  • The built-in file viewer allows me to quickly see the contents of files without having to open them
  • Path Finder’s fly-out drawers are chock full of useful things from recently accessed folders to a Terminal command line

I prefer shallow folder structures and using verbose file names. To me, files are easier to find the fewer folders I have, so I try to keep them to a minimum. The awesome search tools in OS X and Path Finder make finding clearly-named files a breeze.

I can’t talk about file management without mentioning Default Folder X, too. I went way too long without using it. Default Folder X makes Finder ‘Save As’ windows several orders of magnitude more useful. I use the Favorites and Recent Folders features constantly. I love how quickly I can point my way through folder structures. If these things don’t sound like a big deal, just download Default Folder X and give it a try. I bet you’ll be hooked.

Last and definitely not least, A Better Finder Rename is extremely handy when you need to rename many files in batch. Sometimes after creating a lot of PDFs, I’ll decide to change my naming scheme or sequence them in some special way. A Better Finder Rename has every kind option imaginable for appending, prepending, replacing, sequencing, and more. I can’t recommend it enough.


The applications mentioned so far do a lot of the heavy lifting in my work as an exam instructor, but there are a few other notables:

  • Sometimes I need to get into the backend of the web server that hosts my videos. Transmit is my favorite FTP application. I really like the interface, and I like how I can mount FTP folders in Finder.

  • I keep up with miscellaneous notes (e.g. ScreenFlow settings and tips) in nvALT

  • Soulver is my favorite math program for checking calculations. There are many things I like about it: notably how I can copy text out of it and integrate that text into a lesson with very little cleanup.

  • LaunchBar gets used constantly in all of my work: from finding files to doing quick web searches to grabbing items in my clipboard history.

  • Some of the courses have blogs that we use to communicate course updates. MarsEdit makes managing multiple blogs a cinch.

  • TextExpander is really handy when responding to students’ email. Generally I write custom replies, but hey, some things come up over and over again.

  • CleanHaven does a great job of cleaning up text copied from PDF. There are often excess returns, etc. that need removing.