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Series: Tools We Use
Clever programs that are favored (and used!) by the TidBITS staff
Article 1 of 17 in series
In the fuss over major productivity applications and well-known utilities, it's easy to lose sight of clever programs that make using our Macs easier or betterShow full article
In the fuss over major productivity applications and well-known utilities, it's easy to lose sight of clever programs that make using our Macs easier or better. These tools form a big percentage of the 80 MB (90 files) of submissions the Info-Mac Archive receives each week. They're all freeware or shareware, and most are written by individual programmers seeking to solve nagging problems. We're talking about classic one-trick ponies here, and although these programs may lack universal appeal, if you need their single trick, you'll be a happy user.
The main thing separating the programs we plan to write about in this sporadic column from all the others is that these are the tools members of the TidBITS staff actually use. If we don't use it, we won't be writing about it in this column - simple as that.
GURU -- We used to pride ourselves on knowing the basic specs of all Macs. The Performas eliminated that ability for most everyone, and only recently has the Macintosh line become more coherent. Many resources have appeared over the years to provide information about Macintosh models, and Apple publishes much of this information on their Web site.
However, the tool I turn to whenever I have a question about a specific Mac is the freeware GURU (GUide to RAM Upgrades), written by Craig Marciniak and Steve Jackman for NewerRAM (previously part of Newer Technologies and now owned by Peripheral Enhancements). GURU is a small database with a custom front end and a few cool features; what sets it apart is its focused content. GURU's great for determining what sort of RAM to buy for a given Mac, what type of clock battery a Mac takes, and what video resolutions are possible.
GURU's primary interface is a floating palette with pop-up menus for each class of Macintosh and Macintosh clones. If you're not a floating palette fan, you can also use the hierarchical menus in the Windows menu. Choose a model from one of the menus and GURU displays a two- or three-tabbed window filled with information about that system.
The General Information tab provides basic specifications, including processor type, number of expansion slots, and so on. As Macs age and clock batteries die, the information on which clock battery to buy may prove useful. A dead clock battery can result in a variety of problems ranging from inaccurate timekeeping to a failure to start up; you might be able to save money by buying a battery and installing it yourself rather than taking the Mac in for service.
The Memory tab concentrates on RAM details, telling you what sort of SIMMs, DIMMs, or other RAM modules a Mac needs, plus the number of sockets in the machine. GURU also includes useful items like the minimum speed, the maximum RAM configuration, and which memory modules sizes will work. You can select configurations from a pop-up menu to learn what combinations of RAM modules are necessary to achieve that configuration. With some Macs, you can also access a graphical map of the RAM sockets and populate them by choosing module sizes from pop-up menus; when possible, GURU also shows you how to install the modules to support memory interleaving (which can increase performance slightly).
Finally, the Video tab tells you how much VRAM is installed by default in any given Mac, and lets you figure out how much more you can add and what bit depth that will provide at different resolutions.
One of the reasons I like GURU is that it's been around for years and has been revised constantly to account for new Macs. Every so often I realize I have an old version and pop out to the Internet to pick up a current copy. There's a Web Site button in the About dialog that takes you to the NewerRAM Web site, but I'd also like to see support for the Simple Internet Version Control (SIVC) protocol that Anarchie Pro and other programs use to inform users of updates.
GURU 2.7.1, which is the current version, is a 475K download. If you're curious about different Macintosh models, grab a copy of GURU today.
Article 2 of 17 in series
In TidBITS-457, we introduced a sporadic feature called Tools We Use, each instance of which focuses on a single, clever program that makes our Macs easier to useShow full article
In TidBITS-457, we introduced a sporadic feature called Tools We Use, each instance of which focuses on a single, clever program that makes our Macs easier to use. Although the Internet is awash with freeware and shareware utilities, Tools We Use focuses on programs actually used by members of the TidBITS staff. The first installment covered the freeware GURU (Guide To RAM Upgrades) written by Craig Marciniak and Steve Jackman; now, it's time to take a look at Nick D'Amato's Desktop Resetter 1.2.1.
Desktop Resetter -- If you organize numerous icons on your desktop and frequently lose that organization (switching monitor resolutions can do it), you can use Desktop Resetter to restore your icons to their favored positions. I've found Desktop Resetter handy because I have two large monitors and I tend to keep icons pertaining to current projects on my desktop. The problem arises when I start up from a different disk that doesn't know about my monitor settings. Much of the time, after I return to my primary startup disk, all my desktop icons are haphazardly splashed against the right edge of the right-hand monitor, requiring five minutes of fiddling to get everything back where I want. [I encounter a similar problem using my PowerBook 5300cs on multiple external monitors. -Jeff]
Enter Desktop Resetter. All you do is make sure your icons are placed properly, then run Desktop Resetter and tell it to remember your icon settings. Then you forget about it until the next time you find your icons strewn randomly about your desktop. Before you go to the work of moving everything back into place, run Desktop Resetter again and tell it to reset icons to their remembered positions. Obviously, icons that have appeared since you told Desktop Resetter to remember positions won't move, but everything else magically jumps back into place. Since booting with other disks often happens in periods of high stress (like recovering files or testing dangerous software), it's especially nice not to also suffer the irritation of a messy desktop.
I have no particular complaints with Desktop Resetter, since it does what it promises with a minimum of fuss. Although having Desktop Resetter remember icon positions frequently is possible, thanks to its Quick Remember hotkey (a Quick Reset hotkey is also available), that's more than I need, so I've not messed with it. It's worth reading the Read Me file for additional tips and hints.
Desktop Resetter is $10 shareware, runs on any Mac with System 7.5 or later, and is a 121K download. If you've ever been annoyed at having to reorganize desktop icons after switching resolutions or changing monitors, check out Desktop Resetter.
Article 3 of 17 in series
If you're an investor with an Internet connection, you probably already know about the various free Web sites that offer stock quotes for free, or in exchange for eyeballing a couple of banner adsShow full article
If you're an investor with an Internet connection, you probably already know about the various free Web sites that offer stock quotes for free, or in exchange for eyeballing a couple of banner ads. Those who like frequent updates but don't want to keep a Web browser tied up for such tasks will find a handy alternative in Galleon Software's MacTicker.
MacTicker is nothing less than a Web browser engineered for a specific task, using HTTP queries to retrieve stock quotes from free Web services such as PCQuote, Quote.com, and Yahoo (including international data from Yahoo UK & Ireland and Yahoo Australia & NZ). Currently, all of the free services provide stock quotes that are delayed by about 15 minutes, though some offer subscription services for up-to-the-minute quotes.
MacTicker features an array of display options for individual stocks, as well as a movable stock ticker window that maintains a steadily updated stream of current stock prices and change values for stocks you've selected.
MacTicker can display individual stocks three ways: as a tiny floating window with just the stock symbol, current price, and today's change; as a larger floating window with the same information more clearly labeled and with bigger text; or as a still-larger window with not only this information but the stock's full name and a wide array of recent and 52-week stats. Each stock's window may be resized or dismissed independently of the stock ticker, and the windows can either hide or remain visible when MacTicker is in the background. You can also specify colors that mark whether a stock is gaining, losing, or remaining unchanged in value, and set alerts that trigger based on price fluctuations.
The recently released MacTicker 1.1 sports a redesigned graphics engine that lets you view the scrolling information at font sizes up to 156 points. MacTicker 1.1 also supports SOCKS firewalls via Internet Config and can display portions of a dollar as either decimals or fractions.
I'd like to see a feature that allowed users to look up ticker symbols for stocks, but most users probably know the relevant ticker symbols from looking up quotes in newspapers or on the Web.
MacTicker is a $25 shareware application and can be downloaded from the Galleon Web site. Unregistered users can run a full version of the software, though for only 15 minutes at a time. You can purchase MacTicker online from BuyDirect using a credit card or directly from Galleon by check or purchase order in the U.S. and Canada using their toll-free telephone number. MacTicker is available for PowerPC and 68K Mac OS computers running System 7.5 or later and Open Transport 1.1.2 or later. The demonstration version is a 975K download.
Article 4 of 17 in series
by Jeff Carlson
A recent expedition through my Preferences folder uncovered the fossils of utilities and other programs I've installed and removed during the past several monthsShow full article
A recent expedition through my Preferences folder uncovered the fossils of utilities and other programs I've installed and removed during the past several months. These abandoned preferences files shared names with applications that seemed worth trying but didn't end up on the list of tools I use regularly. At the same time, my system spelunking highlighted a few programs I tend to forget about - not because they've been relegated to some deeply nested folder, but because their features have become second nature. One of these gems is St. Clair Software's Default Folder.
Default Folder enhances traditional Open and Save dialog boxes, as well as newer Navigation Services dialogs, by enabling you to access frequently used folders without having to wend your way through the Finder's file hierarchy one directory at a time. This capability not only makes file manipulation smoother but also saves time in the long run.
Default Folder creates a row of four buttons in Open and Save dialog boxes that appears when your cursor passes over the name of the current hard disk in the upper-right corner. Pressing the buttons brings up pop-up menus that let you select recently used folders, access folders you've marked as Favorites, switch between mounted hard disk volumes, and use Default Folder's file utility features. In Navigation Services windows, three of these buttons are already present: Favorites, Shortcuts (which is similar to the Disks button in standard Open and Save dialogs), and Recent. Default Folder adds its Utility button to the left of these.
Default Folder also creates Favorites and Recent folders in the Apple menu and includes a Control Strip module, enabling you to open deeply nested folders with a single action in the Finder.
It's Your Own Default -- The heart of Default Folder is the capability to make Open and Save dialogs jump to a preferred folder when you use an application. For example, if you store all of your FileMaker Pro databases in one central folder, you can set that as your default location. Default folders can be assigned for each application you use, or you can specify one folder that all applications will use. This reduces the possibility of inadvertently saving a file where you won't be able to locate it easily later. From now on, that folder will be selected when you open or save a file for the first time after launching the application. You can also press Command-U or select the first item from the Favorites menu to jump to that folder at any time. Default Folder remembers the location of the last file you opened or saved, so jumping quickly to your chosen directory can often save you the hassle of navigating back to your default.
Direct Your Directories -- I tend to work on four or five projects concurrently, so much of my time is concentrated within a handful of folders. I could open them all in the Finder for easy access, or set them as pop-up windows at the bottom of the screen, but I don't like to clutter my desktop with items I'm not actively using, and I already have five pop-up windows.
Instead, I access my regular folders from any Open or Save dialog box by selecting them from Default Folder's Favorites menu. This is by far the feature I use most, because Default Folder assigns a numbered keyboard shortcut (such as Command-2) to your Favorite folders. Although you can't change the shortcut key (which is based on the position your folder appears in the Favorites list) you can dictate the list's order in Default Folder's control panel. Now, whenever I need to access TidBITS-related files, I type Command-1 in any Open or Save dialog box. It's also handy to use this feature as a point of reference: if I need to get to a folder that's at the same level as TidBITS (another project, for instance) but I'm in the middle of another directory or volume, I can type Command-1, then navigate up one level in the hierarchy to access my folder. With only a minute or two of setup time, I've changed a multiple step action into a series of two or three keystrokes. Since I'm also a big fan of being able to do as much as possible from the keyboard, Default Folder also cuts down on the number of times I reach for the mouse.
Another feature I find invaluable, to my surprise, is the capability to click on any open window on the desktop while in an Open or Save dialog to move directly to that folder. True, I try not to leave too many windows open on the Desktop, but often it's helpful to display a few directory windows that I'm using, then switch quickly between them with the click of a mouse. I've found this to be particularly helpful with my pop-up windows in the Finder, allowing me to view each folder easily by clicking on its tab at the bottom of the screen. This works with open windows that are hidden behind applications, as well.
The latest version of Default Folder added a nice twist to this feature: if you click and hold the mouse cursor outside of your Open or Save dialog, you're presented with a contextual pop-up menu that lists all open folders on the Desktop.
Folder Sets -- If you find yourself moving between multiple folders repeatedly, Default Folder can create folder sets that help to focus your efforts. I tend to stick with just one set because I don't use a large number of folders in my work; however, I could easily split my tasks between writing-related and design-related tasks. For example, when I'm focusing on one task, I don't necessarily want to clutter my Default Folder menus with items associated with something else. In this case I would set up two sets in the Default Folder control panel, and include folders specific to each task in the sets. When you have two or more sets in use, you can switch between them using the Utility menu, or by pressing a key combination (Command-Option-2, for example). Sets can also be exported or imported.
More Features Beneath the Surface -- Although Default Folder devotes itself to switching between folders, several other useful features are also available. From any Open or Save dialog, you can create new folders, rename files or folders, or move items to the Trash without exiting to the Finder. It's also possible to get information about a file, such as its size, creation and modification dates, and its type and creator codes (which can be edited in Default Folder's advanced mode).
You can speed up the display of folder lists by choosing to show only generic icons. Other settings control the size of the Recent menu, add the capability to display files of any type by Option-clicking the list, and control whether recent files are listed chronologically or alphabetically. Default Folder also works in conjunction with utilities such as Apollo, DragStrip, DragThing, Dialog View, and KeyQuencer to increase their directory navigation abilities.
Default Folder has become one with my Mac, as far as I'm concerned. Using a computer that doesn't have Default Folder's features feels awkward and limiting now, forcing me to map directory structures in my mind as I work, rather than allowing me to concentrate on the task at hand. Although other utilities (like Action Files; see "Get a Piece of the ACTION Files" in TidBITS-434) offer similar features, Default Folder is a leaner program that doesn't try to accomplish every conceivable file-related task. For the shareware price of $25, this 930K download will pay for itself within hours of using it.
Article 5 of 17 in series
by Jeff Carlson
Although my PowerBook G3 now acts as my main computer, both on the road and on my desk, my earlier PowerBook 5300 existed primarily as a satellite machineShow full article
Although my PowerBook G3 now acts as my main computer, both on the road and on my desk, my earlier PowerBook 5300 existed primarily as a satellite machine. As a mobile Mac it proved invaluable, but at home or in the office it became another flat surface to hold papers and floppies while the battery charged. Switching between machines presented a problem: what's the best way to ensure that my data is up to date on both machines? I found the solution in the aptly named shareware utility Synchronize, which I now use to synchronize files and folders on a variety of machines.
Through a Mirror, Darkly -- Synchronize's functionality is the same as other similar tools, such as Apple's File Assistant: it compares files' modification times and replaces old versions with new ones. This way, if you've changed two separate files on two machines, the end result will be folders containing the most recent editions of each file. You could accomplish this by dragging each file to its comparable destination in the Finder, which automatically compares modification times, but you'd go insane soon after responding to a few dozen "Do you want to replace..." dialogs.
The problem with some synchronization utilities is that they assume you want exact duplicates of your source and destination folders, and will efficiently create folder clones for you. But what if you don't want exact duplicates? What if your Date & Time settings got screwed up on one machine, and your last hour's of work is efficiently overwritten? When I used to synchronize the folder for Claris Emailer 1.0 (which stored each message as its own file, instead of one database as Emailer 2.0v3 does), I once lost a significant amount of email because the PowerBook's date was off. Blind efficiency quickly lost its appeal.
The Power of Choice -- Synchronize offers the same functionality but with much more control. After scanning the directories you specify, Synchronize presents a list of files to copy, with color-coded arrows to indicate which files will be overwritten. Clicking a line representing a file or folder displays modification dates and times, as well as the files' sizes (which can be useful when files' dates are extremely divergent). If you run across a pair of files that seem misdirected, you can choose to remove them from the list. You can also mark files for deletion (both files in a pair are deleted).
Being able to micro-manage your synchronization operations is worth the price of registration, but there are other features which make the program compelling. In some cases Synchronize can be too good at its task, such as copying aliases or invisible files like custom icons. Synchronize's configuration options allow you to specify individual file and folder names to ignore, and you can filter the selections based on label, modification date, file type (such as aliases or invisible files), or parent application. If you regularly synchronize the same two folders, you'll appreciate not having to remove such items manually from the Files to Copy list.
Synchronize can be set to perform brute force copies that create exact duplicates of the master folders, such as when you want to maintain a backup of a folder. Using Synchronize's multiple Start and Completion options, you can schedule automatic sessions that could, for example, mount a network volume in the middle of the night, synchronize files between it and your Mac, put away the volume, and then put your Mac to sleep.
The program stores folder locations and settings in independent Synchronize files, so initiating a synchronization job is usually just a matter of double-clicking its file. You can also set those files to open automatically when you launch the program, which makes all of your frequently used operations ready at the same time.
The only persistent problem I have with Synchronize is the lack of a zoom box in the Files to Copy window. I'm usually comparing at least dozens of files, and the default window size displays less than ten items. Although you can manually expand the window by dragging the lower-right corner, I want to be able to click a zoom box to make the window fit my monitor's height. For a long time I also wished for the capability to synchronize files over the Internet, since Synchronize works only on local volumes and over AppleTalk LANs. Qdea's upcoming Synchronize Pro 4.0 (a separate product, now in public beta) promises TCP/IP synchronization.
Despite my enthusiasm, I don't actually spend much time using Synchronize; it works so well that I can quickly synchronize the files I need and get on with my day. That kind of efficiency maintains its appeal.
Synchronize 3.7 is available as a free 650K download. The unregistered version limits synchronization of folders containing 10 MB of data or less; advanced features apply to folders sized 1 MB or less. Paying the $29.95 registration fee removes the file size restrictions (you may have to increase the amount of allocated RAM depending on the number of files being synchronized), and includes free upgrades.
Article 6 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
Applications these days seem to sport more and more menus, and the menubar is becoming increasingly crowded thanks to the new wider Application menu title, the keyboard menu icon, and the clock, not to mention third-party icons such as OneClick, OSA Menu, StuffIt's Magic Menu, Conflict Catcher, and Timbuktu ProShow full article
Applications these days seem to sport more and more menus, and the menubar is becoming increasingly crowded thanks to the new wider Application menu title, the keyboard menu icon, and the clock, not to mention third-party icons such as OneClick, OSA Menu, StuffIt's Magic Menu, Conflict Catcher, and Timbuktu Pro. Certainly large monitors are more common today than they were five years ago, but I'm still using some narrow ones. For years I've relied on Menuette, a clever shareware control panel that solves the problem once and for all.
Menuette substitutes small icons of your choosing (or even of your creation) for menu names in your menubar, a seemingly obvious, and to me, essential interface enhancement. Mostly, the purpose is to save space, which is a major achievement because space needs saving. But I find Menuette important in other ways as well.
Many years of dancing with Menuette have wrought a curious change in my gestalt: I no longer want to see menu names. Doubtless many won't share this opinion, but for me, menubar icons are better! They're easier to see, and easier for my mind to encompass. I know at a glance, from its row of menu icons, what program is frontmost. And I know more viscerally what each menu does. Most programs, after all, have certain menus in common (File, Edit, Help), and certain menus recur frequently (Tools, Options, Insert, Format); so I've become used to icons representing those concepts. Moreover, it isn't the name of a menu that's important, but what it signifies, so that if the Options menu in one program and the Preferences menu in another end up represented by the same icon, so much the better. I'm far more word-oriented than picture-oriented, so my strong feelings for Menuette speak volumes for its power. Besides, which icons appear is completely up to the user: you can toggle instantly between icons and names, and any menu can be designated always to show a name instead of an icon. So even if you think you're anti-icon, you might want to give Menuette a try, since you can make it work however best suits you.
Menuette's recent 3.0 and 3.0.1 updates, the first since 1994, add menu font control, WYSIWYG font menus, menu icons with varying widths, and the capability to turn off icons entirely to focus on Menuette's menu font controls. Most remarkable, Menuette can now animate menu icons, either when you're selecting from the menu or (don't try this at home) all the time. This makes choosing from the menu bar downright fun; with the icons waggling at you, it's a little like playing Snood all the time (don't get me started about that, unless you'd like to rename this column "Games We Play Constantly")! The interface has been brilliantly rewritten, including an icon editor and superbly intuitive use of drag & drop; Menuette can import animations from Christopher Suley's earlier menu animation program Zipple, animated GIFs, and application icons, and it includes a large base of icons. Menuette comes from Tiger Technologies, workshop of legendary Mac programmer Robert L. Mathews (and home of perennial favorite Holiday Lights). It's $20 shareware, with a free ten-day trial.
Article 7 of 17 in series
by Geoff Duncan
I admit it: I'm an AppleScript junkie. I've been wary of macro programs and similar automation products since I got my first Macintosh. The more I learned about Mac programming, the more I realized how many low-level patches macro programs had to use, and the more they scared meShow full article
I admit it: I'm an AppleScript junkie. I've been wary of macro programs and similar automation products since I got my first Macintosh. The more I learned about Mac programming, the more I realized how many low-level patches macro programs had to use, and the more they scared me. Often, I had no choice but to use those products, and inevitably I'd pay a price: either my system became unacceptably unstable, or the programs would be incompatible with other necessary software or new versions of the system. So I'd abandon my work and start over with a different product... and eventually I abandoned macro programs altogether.
AppleScript seemed to be an answer - a scripting language built around exchanging events and data via facilities built directly into the operating system. Although scriptable applications were rare when AppleScript was introduced in 1993 - and the technology was almost ignored by Apple for several years - today most major applications and utilities are scriptable (at least to some extent), and good scriptability is seen as a worthwhile and necessary feature of many products.
One of AppleScript's shortcomings, however, is the absence of a built-in scheduler. You can't tell your Mac to run a script in the wee hours of every morning, every ten minutes, or on the second Tuesday of every month without using a third-party add-on. Chris Johnson's Unix-derived (and thus cryptic) Cron fills the need for some people, and Mark Alldritt's Scheduler control panel has been available for some time. I used Scheduler for years, and though it was quite stable, it made managing more than a few scheduled events arduous. Also, Scheduler just opens applications or documents - which can include stand-alone script applications - but can't run scripts directly, which made for some awkward moments when an event triggered while I was using my Mac. Further, if I wanted to run a scheduled script manually, I had to use yet another utility, or hunt the thing down in the Finder and launch it myself. Nonetheless, Scheduler offers unique capabilities, such as the capability to open items when waking from sleep, or when a PowerBook's power adapter is plugged in or removed.
Say iDo -- I may have found my scheduling solution in Sophisticated Circuits' iDo Script Scheduler, which I first mentioned back in TidBITS-481. A Lite version is available on recent Mac OS CD-ROMs, and also as a free download from Apple's AppleScript site as well as Sophisticated Circuit's Web site.
Basically, iDo Script Scheduler is an extension and control panel combination evolved from the software Sophisticated Circuits developed for their PowerKey line of intelligent power strips. The PowerKey Pro software has a scheduling interface for opening documents, mounting disks, running scripts, plus starting up and shutting down machines. iDo Script Scheduler divorces the scheduling interface from the PowerKey hardware and focuses on providing the Mac OS's missing script-scheduling capability. iDo Script Scheduler runs only scripts or runs script applications - it can't open applications or documents on its own, but (of course) it can run a script which in turn opens applications or documents.
There are two versions of iDo Script Scheduler. The free Lite version enables you to schedule up to three events - enough to get a taste, and maybe even sufficient for some users or for dedicated Macs. iDo Script Scheduler Lite offers a solid scheduling interface enabling users to set up:
one-shot scripts which trigger at a specific date and time;
repeating scripts which run after a specified time interval has passed (expressed in minutes, hours, days, or weeks);
scripts which run at a particular time on specific days of the week (such as every weekday, every Sunday, or every Tuesday and Thursday);
scripts which run once a month - you can specify a particular day (4th day of each month), a particular weekday (3rd Friday of every month), or on the same day from the end of the month (for instance, entering "-1" as the day of the month will trigger the script on April 30th this month, but May 31st next month).
You can upgrade the Lite version to iDo Script Scheduler Enhanced for $25. In addition to supporting an unlimited number of scheduled events, the Enhanced version also enables:
hot key triggers which run a script when you press a specific key combination;
idle-time triggers which run a script after the system has been idle for a specific period of time.
I was skeptical these last two triggers would be useful for me. I run many applications, so it's tough to find hot-key combinations which don't conflict with existing shortcuts, and I usually don't want anything mucking with my machine if I'm not using it - not even a script I wrote myself. But I've gradually warmed up to them and found some useful tricks - for instance, a script which emulates the Application menu's Hide Others command, but won't hide a handful of other applications I don't want hidden if they're running in the background, like Stickies or a monitoring program. I only have one idle script - it warns me when my email partition is short on free space - and so far haven't had any problems.
And iWant... iDo Script Scheduler has room for enhancements. I'd like to be able to sort events listed in the control panel by name, next trigger, and type - right now scheduled events are listed chronologically with hot keys and idle scripts at the bottom. The mostly elegant scheduling interface has a few oddities - for instance, it will happily let you schedule a script for the eighth Friday of each month. Globally accessible hot keys are fine, but I'd also like to create hot keys which are specific to particular applications, or available to all except particular applications. The iDo Script Scheduler extension (really a background application) is itself scriptable, but I'd like to be able to create new events on the fly via a script, rather than merely be able to trigger, enable, or disable existing events. I hope some of these issues are addressed in future releases.
In the meantime, iDo Script Scheduler may already be very useful to you - it is to me. The Lite version is free (and may already be on your Mac OS CD-ROM), the Enhanced version is $25. iDo Script Scheduler works with Mac OS 8.0 or higher, but takes advantage of Mac OS 9's Multiple Users feature (so different users can have different schedules), and uses the Mac OS's built-in HTML-based help introduced in Mac OS 8.5. If you already use AppleScript, iDo Script Scheduler is well worth a look.
Article 8 of 17 in series
by Jeff Carlson
Gone are the days when you could easily build and maintain a Web site using nothing more than SimpleText, NCSA Mosaic, and a rough mental image of how pages linked togetherShow full article
Gone are the days when you could easily build and maintain a Web site using nothing more than SimpleText, NCSA Mosaic, and a rough mental image of how pages linked together. On today's Web, it's not uncommon to find yourself lord of a sprawling Web metropolis that sprang from seemingly humble beginnings. Now, with thousands of links referencing both internal and external pages, the scope of maintaining those links has progressed beyond what one person can do.
Fortunately, this "beyond mere mortal" stage is often when good utilities emerge, hints of the promise that computers could make our work lives less repetitive and more rewarding. When I need to make sure a client's site is navigationally sound, I turn to VSE Link Tester 2.5, an application that not only checks links but makes it easy to track down and fix the errant code.
Of course, you could do all this manually. For hours on end. Clicking until your fingers go numb and your eyes turn to jelly. But I prefer to run Link Tester and go enjoy a cup of coffee.
When Link Tester has followed all the links, it builds a HTML-formatted report detailing the links that were checked, which were broken, and the reason why they didn't work. The program even includes an Error Explanation window that lists and explains the most common problems encountered.
Strengths -- Link Tester understands how people use the program, and throws in just enough extra functionality to appeal to a broad range of users. Every site you scan is stored in a master list in the main window, so it's simple to go back and re-run previous tests. You can also scan local files offline, specify the filename used when the URL ends in a slash (such as index.html or default.html), and be conscious of case-sensitive URLs on some systems. A helpful new feature is the capability to create filters to ignore addresses; for example, it can skip past URLs that are stored on a different machine when you're testing offline.
When testing remote links, Link Tester includes a modicum of control over how it interacts with Web servers by offering a Server Load setting spanning five steps between Very High and Very Low. Although the interface is ambiguous, in practice Link Tester opens fewer connections to remote servers at lower settings.
Weak and Missing Links -- From the point of view of a Web server, though, Link Tester's method of opening multiple simultaneous connections can be problematic. Even at its lowest Server Load setting, Link Tester requests files much faster than a real user; at higher settings some Web servers will interpret Link Tester's accesses as a denial-of-service attack. If you send Link Tester recursively into a large or infinite URL space (like the TidBITS article database), it will happily pummel the remote server for hours, or even days; further Link Tester doesn't obey robots exclusion protocols or META tags, so even if webmasters mark those areas as off-limits to automated programs, Link Tester won't notice. For best results, use only the lowest Server Load setting when checking links to any sites other than your own.
Another potential annoyance is the way Link Tester creates its reports. Each test is saved to an HTML file within a folder named using the URL and a number (such as "www.jeffcarlson.com 001"). Each report folder contains an images folder with a handful of icons used in the report. So, whenever you create a new report, Link Tester clutters your drive with a new set of identical images. It should be just as easy to store these images in one place and reference them in the reports.
I'd also love to see Link Tester support scheduling tests for automatic execution. This is just the type of tool I'd love to park on my PowerBook 5300cs (now acting as a Retrospect backup server) and have run in the middle of the night.
Thinking about Linking -- I like Link Tester because it's straightforward and powerful: typically, after a few minutes I can track down an errant URL or help unravel why something isn't displaying.
Link Tester 2.5 is available in two editions. The standard version, which costs $20, will search one URL, following an unlimited number of links from up to 20 pages on your site. The Business version, at $80, can test an unlimited number of links and pages; an Academic version with the same functionality is available for $40. The unregistered software lets you enter one URL, and provides a limited error report. The software is a 1 MB download. Link Tester requires a 68K or PowerPC-based Mac running System 7.5 or later.
[11-Sep-000 -- When this items was originally published, in many places it incorrectly said the product was named VSE Link Checker, rather than VSE Link Tester. We've amended the text here, and published a correction in TidBITS 547.]
Article 9 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
Back in 1995, Tonya wrote about Impossible Software's font utility TypeTamer 1.0; the following year I bought a copy at Macworld Expo, and loved it. In 1998 I began to encounter some application conflicts, and as machines, systems, and applications advanced still further, I had to abandon it entirelyShow full article
Back in 1995, Tonya wrote about Impossible Software's font utility TypeTamer 1.0; the following year I bought a copy at Macworld Expo, and loved it. In 1998 I began to encounter some application conflicts, and as machines, systems, and applications advanced still further, I had to abandon it entirely. I've missed it ever since. Now it's back as TypeTamer 2, and I'm happy as a clam. Forgive me for gushing, but I love this utility.
TypeTamer is a control panel and extension that acts as a Font menu organizer (so it's incompatible with Action WYSIWYG or Adobe Type Reunion). It replaces the standard Font menu with its own, which pops out from all the places where Font menus need to appear: the Fonts menu in the menubar in Nisus Writer, the Font submenu of the Format menu in FrameMaker, the Font pop-up menu in the message window in Eudora, the Font section in Word 2001's Formatting Palette, and so on. (You can revert to the system's Font menu temporarily by Shift-clicking.) TypeTamer's Font menu offers five chief features:
It clumps your fonts hierarchically into categories that you dictate in the control panel. For example, my Font menu now reads Basic, Display, Cursive, Special. The font names themselves are hierarchical sub-items to those. A font can belong to more than one category, and you can have an automatic extra item, All, which lists every font (a good idea if you are likely to add fonts later without remembering to give them a category). The category database is persistent, so a font which has been assigned a category can be disabled (with Font Reserve or Suitcase, for example) and then later re-enabled, and it will still be in the right category.
Your fonts are further automatically clumped hierarchically into families. For example, one of my Basic fonts is Garamond; there is just one Garamond menu item, with the varieties (Book, Bold, Italic, and so on) appearing as sub-items to it.
The font names can appear in the actual font in the menu. I don't use this feature because the next feature obviates the need for it.
Each font name has an icon telling what type of font it is (TrueType, PostScript, and so on), and if you hold the mouse over the icon you see a sample of text in that font in various sizes. You dictate in the control panel what the text is. If you hold down the Option key, you see a character chart instead, which is good for inserting special characters and learning how to type them (like PopChar).
The first items in the Font menu are the fonts most recently used in your document. To me, that's the best feature. Since any one document will usually use only a couple of fonts, I can easily change fonts by using just these first items in the menu; I never have to dive into the hierarchical part at all.
The magic being worked here is fairly deep, so conflicts are a worry. So far, though, I've had no serious problems. TypeTamer turns all my HyperCard stack windows blue, and not every feature works in every application (for instance, you can't use the special character insertion feature in Nisus Writer); but these are both minor issues I can live with. I hope you'll at least try TypeTamer's demo and see for yourself. If you're like me, you'll wonder how you lived without it.
TypeTamer 2 costs $50 and requires a Mac running System 7 or later, with at least 4 MB of RAM. A 30-day demo is available as a 664K download.
Article 10 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
When I'm organizing my hard disks or attempting to reclaim disk space, the Finder isn't always the most efficient tool. Instead, I turn to Tom Luhrs's DiskSurveyor to learn what's occupying my volumesShow full article
When I'm organizing my hard disks or attempting to reclaim disk space, the Finder isn't always the most efficient tool. Instead, I turn to Tom Luhrs's DiskSurveyor to learn what's occupying my volumes. Drag a volume icon onto DiskSurveyor and, after quickly scanning the volume, it puts up a window where colored rectangles are arranged in columns to represent graphically the sizes of the files and folders on the volume. The height of the window represents the entire occupied portion of the volume. The first column shows the proportional sizes of all the top-level files and folders, the second column shows the proportional sizes of the second-level files and folders, and so forth. On my monitor, I can see about six columns at once (scrolling horizontally displays more).
Where there's room, an item's name is shown, and you can hover the mouse over any item to learn more about it. For a closer look at a folder, just click on it: this zooms the view so that folder occupies the whole first column. You can also see simple bar-charts or pie-charts of all volumes simultaneously, showing how much of each is occupied. Finally, you can export a window's contents as a text file, suitable for analysis with a spreadsheet or database program, or for searching with a text editor such as BBEdit, or for displaying graphically in DiskSurveyor at some later time.
When I first tried the program I thought it had a gorgeous, ingenious, and original interface, but I didn't imagine I'd have much practical use for it. A week or two later, though, it showed me instantly that the invisible Temporary Items folder had accumulated a lot of junk that wasn't being deleted, and a few days later it revealed that virtual memory had been turned on accidentally and was eating up the disk with its swap file. I instantly paid DiskSurveyor's shareware fee! My usual strategy is now to fire up DiskSurveyor from time to time, looking for blocks of color that seem disproportionately large; but I also like to use it just to roam around, getting a sense of what's where on my hard disks in the first place - DiskSurveyor is a great way to do this, because, unlike the Finder, it shows you several levels at once.
DiskSurveyor has almost no connection with the file system; Shift-clicking a folder's representation opens it in the Finder, but that's all (for example, from within DiskSurveyor you can't delete a Finder item or turn an invisible item visible). But I never feel this is a detriment, since there are other ways to accomplish these things; to implement them would probably detract from DiskSurveyor's purity, simplicity, and beauty.
DiskSurveyor 2.5 is $15 shareware; it requires System 7 or higher, and is a 450K download.
Article 11 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
After some years exploring the Web, most of us have collected a number, possibly quite a large number, of URLs that we keep squirrelled away for future reference, in accordance with our habits and interestsShow full article
After some years exploring the Web, most of us have collected a number, possibly quite a large number, of URLs that we keep squirrelled away for future reference, in accordance with our habits and interests. Such preserved URLs are often referred to as "bookmarks." Adam wrote a three-part article in 1996 on bookmark management software and techniques, but at the time I paid scant attention, since my browser of choice, Internet Explorer, handled them adequately, providing a hierarchical menu for choosing "favorite" URLs and an outline interface for arranging them. All that changed, though, in the move to Mac OS X. The problem was partly migrating my settings from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X and keeping them coordinated in case I switched back. But even more important, I no longer had a browser of choice - in this brave new world, I have been experimenting with several browsers (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, OmniWeb, and others) that clamor for my attention. With abrupt clarity, I knew I needed a separate, browser-agnostic URL keeper to act as a central repository.
In this moment of need, Alco Blom's URL Manager Pro saved my bacon. I have been using it in various development versions for months now, but it has just gone final as version 3.0, which seems an appropriate opportunity to recommend it. And I most certainly do. To put it simply, if I had to list the top five utilities without which I could never have made the switch to Mac OS X, URL Manager Pro would be one of them.
Laying Out the Garden -- A URL Manager Pro window represents a bookmark file; you're not limited to one such file, but I like having just one that opens when URL Manager Pro does. The window displays an outline of folders (categories) and URLs within them; you can rearrange these as one would expect of an outline. You can add a note to each URL, as well as set various other options. Double-clicking a URL opens it in your browser; or you can drag it into a browser. But you don't need to work in URL Manager Pro's window just to open a URL; the bookmark file can also be displayed hierarchically in the program's Dock menu, and even, in the case of Internet Explorer, Opera, and iCab, as a normal ("shared") menu amongst the browser's own. (An accompanying "menulet," Mondriaan, lets you access a limited set of separately determined URLs even when URL Manager Pro isn't running.)
Similarly, there are various ways to add a URL from your browser to the bookmark file. You can drag the address from the browser into the bookmark file; you can choose Add Bookmark from URL Manager Pro's Dock icon menu while the browser window is frontmost; you can choose Add Bookmark from the browser's shared menu if it has one; and in some browsers you can even Control-click a link and choose Add Link to URL Manager Pro from the contextual menu.
Tough Row to Hoe -- URL Manager Pro's weakness is the inconsistency of the implementation of its features across different Internet programs. The chief fault lies, of course, with those Internet programs, of which some support shared menus and some don't, some support certain Apple events and some don't, and so forth. It's confusing, and made more confusing by URL Manager Pro itself. You never quite know what a menu item will do, because the same words mean different things in different places. For example, Add Bookmark in the shared menu brings up a dialog for modifying the URL information before entering it in the bookmark file; Add Bookmark in the Dock menu doesn't; Add Bookmark in URL Manager Pro's own menu creates a blank URL; and there's no Add Bookmark in Mondriaan at all. Come to that, why is Mondriaan so different - why isn't it simply a menulet version of URL Manager Pro itself, providing access to the bookmark file, as an alternative to the Dock and the shared menu? In general, the details of how one accesses functionality, such as the names of menu items, could use some rethinking. The situation isn't helped by a manual that's vague, poorly structured, and not always complete.
Nonetheless, URL Manager Pro is a powerful program, full of surprises and usually anticipating your needs; most users will probably require just a fraction of its power. It can be set to watch and record your browsing in a history list, so you can later recover a URL you forgot to add previously. It can import all the links within a Web page or email. It can validate links. I could go on and on - its abilities are too various to list here. Try it and see for yourself.
URL Manager Pro runs natively under Mac OS 8 or higher (2.4 MB download), including Mac OS X (2.2 MB download). It costs a mere $25, or $11 to upgrade from version 2. For $37 you can register both URL Manager Pro and Alco Blom's other shareware utility, Web Confidential, on which I also depend for storing and retrieving user account and password information (see Adam's review - "Web Confidential: Securing Information of All Sorts" in TidBITS-441).
Article 12 of 17 in series
Having to sort through the increasingly repulsive spam that's rushing into our electronic mailboxes is becoming more unpleasant than ever. You can reduce the flow, though, with one of three basic approaches to filtering spam out of your email stream: Boolean filters, points-based filters, and so-called "Bayesian" statistical filtersShow full article
Having to sort through the increasingly repulsive spam that's rushing into our electronic mailboxes is becoming more unpleasant than ever. You can reduce the flow, though, with one of three basic approaches to filtering spam out of your email stream: Boolean filters, points-based filters, and so-called "Bayesian" statistical filters. Put simply, a Boolean filter looks for string of text, and if it's found, considers the message spam. Points-based filters refine that approach, assigning (or removing) points for each criteria matched by a given message; they decide if a message is spam or not by how many points that message accumulates. Statistical (or Bayesian) filters, which were most popularly described in relation to spam in August of 2002 (and refined last month) by Paul Graham, use a statistical approach that combines the probability that any given word or phrase (implementations vary) to decide if the message is spam.
Bayesian Filters -- The beauty of Bayesian filtering is that it works on the contents of your email, which is probably rather different from mine and anyone else's. That's because you must train a Bayesian filter with a sample of both spam and legitimate messages, and because the Bayesian filter continually examines new messages, it can adapt to the kind of mail you receive, both good and bad.
Bayesian filters aren't perfect. Legitimate mail, such as promotional mailings from companies you've bought from in the past, can look a lot like spam at first, and it's also hard to identify spam messages with minimal text accurately. Spam may get through when it's sufficiently related to your profession; for instance, I get spam advertising translation services because of the TidBITS translations. It's also possible for spammers to pollute your corpus of good and bad words by including lots of good words in a spam message, thus reducing the accuracy of the filter over time. On the positive side, it's possible that improved algorithms can address these problems.
There are two main implementations of statistical Bayesian filtering for Mac OS X: Apple's Mail and Michael Tsai's SpamSieve, the latter of which I've been testing with Eudora 5.2 for some months now.
SpamSieve -- Along with its implementation of Bayesian filter, I especially appreciate the fact that SpamSieve works inside Eudora, and also inside a number of other email programs, including Entourage, Mailsmith, and PowerMail. Although it's not available for Mac OS 9, it does also work with Emailer running in Classic mode. I'm not interested in using Mail, and other spam utilities (such as Matterform Media's points-based Spamfire utility, which also has many proponents) work outside of your email program, forcing you to scan for false positives in a separate interface). SpamSieve works with any number of accounts and filters mail from any source your email program supports. Once it has identified messages as spam, it can mark or move them, and in some of the email programs, your filters can continue to work on the marked messages.
SpamSieve accomplishes this by using the AppleScript capabilities of these email programs to pass information to and from SpamSieve itself. The integration is relatively seamless, except in Eudora, the current version of which has limitations that restrict SpamSieve to filtering mail that ends up in the In box (not in any other folder). Since the communication happens via AppleScript, you can edit the included scripts to customize them further. Even while I'm waiting for the next version of Eudora to bring SpamSieve's capabilities to messages I filter out of my In box, I've found it extremely worthwhile.
I initially trained SpamSieve with about 600 spam messages from my disgustingly large collection of spam and 600 good messages from my In box (yes, it has been that full, though I've beaten it back down into the 300s). If you don't have spam around, you could either train SpamSieve as you receive it (probably with lower accuracy at first) or wait briefly until you've collected a representative sample. I've also told SpamSieve to learn from new messages. Since the middle of January, SpamSieve has filtered over 2,600 messages, about 55 percent of which were spam. In that time, it has reported 88 percent accuracy, with a false negative rate of 11 percent and a false positive rate of 1 percent (an alternative way I've used to verify SpamSieve's accuracy came up with lower numbers - 80 percent accuracy, with 19 percent false negatives - I'm working with Michael Tsai to figure out the discrepancy). Most of the false positives were solicited commercial email or messages forwarded to me and a large number of other people, both of which are likely to run afoul of SpamSieve's filtering until it has been trained to recognize similar messages. Because SpamSieve filters on the contents of your particular email stream, your mileage may vary, as it has for other TidBITS staff members, who have seen somewhat less reliable results.
New features in SpamSieve 1.3 include increased resilience to the ways spammers are now obfuscating common words, the capability to use email addresses in Apple's Address Book as a whitelist (so mail from people whose addresses are stored in the Address Book is never considered spam), editing of SpamSieve's corpus of words, type-to-select in the Corpus window, and the capability to see statistics from after any given date.
If you've longed for the Bayesian filtering in Apple's Mail, but weren't willing to give up your preferred email program for that one capability, I'd strongly encourage you to take a look at SpamSieve. Michael Tsai is developing it actively, and has been extremely responsive to comments and suggestions.
SpamSieve 1.3 is $20 shareware (upgrades from previous versions are free) and is a 1.5 MB download.
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Article 13 of 17 in series
Way back in the dawn of computing, there was a word processor called WordStar. Many people who used it heavily claimed that its keyboard controls had become embedded in their fingertips, but I never quite understood what they meantShow full article
Way back in the dawn of computing, there was a word processor called WordStar. Many people who used it heavily claimed that its keyboard controls had become embedded in their fingertips, but I never quite understood what they meant. Thanks to the Mac OS X utility LaunchBar, written by Norbert Heger of Objective Development, I now know what they were talking about.
LaunchBar is a launcher utility. Apple provides plenty of ways of launching applications in Mac OS X, such as double-clicking application or document icons in the Finder, clicking icons in the Dock, or choosing an item from the Recent Items menu. But all of these approaches - and most other launcher utilities - fall down in one way or another.
Double-clicking an application is easy and obvious, but it requires that you navigate to that application in the Finder, which in turn requires that you know where the application is located. Clicking icons in the Dock works fine for a small number of frequently used applications, but only for a small number, and you must set them up in advance. The Recent Items menu implements an undeniably good idea - speeding access to those items you happen to have used in the recent past - but as soon as you want to launch an application that's not in the Recent Applications list, you're back to hunting through the Finder. Worse, you never know if a seldom-used application will be in that list until you look.
LaunchBar solves all of these problems.
Type to Launch -- Although there are multiple ways to activate LaunchBar, such as clicking its menu bar icon, Dock icon, or window, the way most people use it is by pressing a system-wide keyboard shortcut. You can pick from five pre-defined possibilities; I use Command-Space. Once you've activated LaunchBar, you type a few characters from the name of the application you want to launch, verify briefly in LaunchBar's unobtrusive window that it has associated your typing with the correct application, and press Return. The entire process takes only a second, no matter what application you may be launching.
Let's compare LaunchBar's approach with the other methods of launching applications. Because LaunchBar automatically scans your hard disk for applications when it launches, it always knows exactly which ones you have installed, and it lets you launch any of them without the least bit of hunting through folders in the Finder. Since it scans automatically, you don't have to set it up explicitly, as you do with the Dock and many other launcher utilities (although you can control where it looks when scanning for new items to make available for launching - more on that in a bit). And finally, it doesn't care if you last launched an application yesterday or a year ago - the last access time has almost no meaning to LaunchBar.
LaunchBar also doesn't stop at launching applications. It can open documents in their associated applications. It can open folders in the Finder, and you can even navigate through folders with the arrow keys right in LaunchBar. It can open specific preference panes in System Preferences, or specific tools in Karelia's Watson. It can open bookmarks from any Web browser in your default Web browser or, in the latest version of LaunchBar, in a specific Web browser. It can even "launch" email addresses; that is, it can create a new email message to the selected address using your default email program.
You're probably wondering how LaunchBar knows that if you type BB that you want it to launch BBEdit. The answer is simple - it's magic. Okay, it just seems that way - it's actually an intelligent adaptive algorithm, which means that LaunchBar makes an educated guess. It's pretty good - if I type IPNM, it guesses correctly at IPNetMonitor X. The problem comes when the abbreviation you type can reasonably match multiple applications, documents, bookmarks, or email addresses, at which point you must scroll through the list of choices LaunchBar displays and pick the correct one. So, if I type RE and want Retrospect Express, I have to pick it manually once or twice so LaunchBar knows that I don't want Retrospect, or Retrospect Client, or ResEdit, or one of the zillion Kagi Register applications from numerous shareware programs on my hard disk. And yes, there's a way to specify mappings that LaunchBar could never guess, such as MAIL for Microsoft Entourage.
This adaptive algorithm is what sets LaunchBar apart. When it's just starting fresh, it makes intelligent guesses, but when it guesses wrong, it learns from its mistakes and constantly adapts itself to the user's idiosyncrasies. It's also forgiving - I make typing errors in my abbreviations all the time, but as long as LaunchBar does the right thing, I'm happy. At worst, my mistake will force me to teach LaunchBar about a different abbreviation mapping later.
Using LaunchBar's keyboard-based approach to launching files turns out to be incredibly quick, but even better, it turns out to be fairly universal. Like all Mac users, Tonya arranges her Mac the way she wants, which always befuddles me when I sit down at it. No longer do I have to ask where she's stored something or use Find to locate it. Now I just hit Command-Space on her Mac, type an abbreviation, and let LaunchBar work its usual magic. So, LaunchBar actually helps provide a consistent interface for multiple Macs that may be set up in very different ways behind the scenes.
Configuration -- Where does LaunchBar find the set of applications, documents, and folders to match to abbreviations you type? If you choose Open Configuration from LaunchBar's Configuration menu, you see a somewhat complex window that shows just which folders LaunchBar scans. You can add folders or files by dragging them into the window, and you can turn the pre-defined folders on and off with the checkbox next to each one. For instance, since I have Apple's Developer Tools installed, LaunchBar was set to let me open large numbers of developer documentation files; since I'm not interested in opening them quickly or having them compete for my abbreviations, I simply turned them off. (On the other side of the coin, Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg said that without LaunchBar's special awareness of the Cocoa documentation files, it would be basically impossible for him to do any development work at all.) I did, however, add all my Eudora address book files in the Nicknames folder, since LaunchBar didn't know about them by default.
Realistically, I suspect most users will never even delve into LaunchBar's Configuration window, but if you find it constantly suggesting items you never want to see again, a trip into the Configuration window to disable or delete the folder that holds those files is worth the effort.
Further Refinements -- Within this basic functionality, LaunchBar offers numerous tweaks that most users probably won't use, but which can make a huge difference for those that can utilize them. If you press Option-Return after selecting an application, LaunchBar hides all other applications while launching. Press Command-Return, and LaunchBar shows the selected application in the Finder. LaunchBar supports drag & drop, so you can drag a file to LaunchBar's window to open it with the selected application, and you can even start dragging, then type LaunchBar's activation key and the necessary abbreviation, then drop the file on LaunchBar's window. This could be handy for opening an HTML file with BBEdit, for instance, when double-clicking would normally open in Safari. Drag & drop can also be used with folders to move or copy files, make aliases and so on.
For those who dislike the Dock and keep it hidden, LaunchBar can show a list of running applications. Press LaunchBar's keyboard shortcut twice; once the list is visible, you can arrow through it, click the mouse, or use a scroll wheel to select an application, after which releasing the Command key brings it to the front.
Extending the Metaphor -- LaunchBar usually supports bookmarks and email addresses by looking into the bookmark or address book files for the various Web browsers and email programs. However, in situations where it can't read the program's special file format (as with Outlook Express, Entourage, and Mailsmith), you can work around the problem by exporting a text file and telling LaunchBar to scan that file for email addresses.
But this gets one to thinking. Wouldn't it be nice to find a phone number or postal address for someone in your contact database by typing an abbreviation for their name? LaunchBar could display all contact information for that person, and it could perhaps send selected bits of that information to different applications. So, pressing E might create a new email address in your default email program, pressing P might dial the phone using your modem, and pressing A could put the postal address on the clipboard for pasting into other applications.
Those features would be welcome, but even cooler would be an XML-based abstraction layer that would let anyone teach LaunchBar how to understand new types of data and act on them, perhaps using AppleScript to send the information to the desired application.
Crossing the Bar -- I'll admit it. I'm utterly addicted, and like those WordStar fans of yesteryear, I find myself typing Command-Space on just about any Mac I'm using. And when it doesn't work because LaunchBar isn't installed, I feel like an addict denied his fix. I'm even unreasonably irritated when the Mac is running Mac OS 9 and couldn't possibly be running LaunchBar. LaunchBar has worked its way into my neurons, and I'm all the more productive because of it. It's absolutely worth a try, and that's especially true if you use lots of applications, you're primarily a keyboard user, or you're coming to Mac OS X from the Unix command-line world.
LaunchBar 3.2.9 costs $20 for individuals, $40 for business users, and there's a trial version available that gives you LaunchBar's full feature set, but only works for seven activations per session. It's a tiny 246K download.
PayBITS: If learning about LaunchBar makes using Mac OS X as easy
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Article 14 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
Call me weird - and no doubt you will - but I often like to have my computer make random noise. The reason is that when I'm working at my computer on a piece of writing, I don't like silenceShow full article
Call me weird - and no doubt you will - but I often like to have my computer make random noise. The reason is that when I'm working at my computer on a piece of writing, I don't like silence. To stay focused, and to help drown out the distracting natural and artificial noises of the neighborhood, it helps me to have some steady sound proceeding in the background. That sound, however, must not involve human voices, such as radio or television. If Terry Gross or the Car Talk guys are on, no work will get done; instead, I'll listen to them. The same thing applies to music. Unlike many people, I can't tune music out; music as background doesn't work for me. Perhaps this is because of my classical training - I don't know - but whatever the reason, when music is in the air, I tend to listen. This phenomenon is especially troublesome, by the way, in drug stores and restaurants that use Muzak or "Easy Listening" or other pseudo-musical perversions; I can't stop listening, and what I'm hearing is horrible, so I typically run screaming from the place moments after entering. How people can actually work in such venues, or what restrains them from suing their employers, has always been a mystery to me. Everyone complains of the ghastly holiday music that pervades workplaces in the run-up to Christmas, but to me, the whole world sounds like that all year round. But I digress.
As I said at the outset, while working at my computer, I often want sound, but not speech, and not music either; and the solution is random noise. I'm referring here to sound that goes nowhere and has no discernible pattern, sound that is gentle and pretty and unobtrusive. Such sound has nothing to grab the mind's attention, nothing to remind the hearer of the passage of time; yet neither is it soporific or monotonous. This sort of sound, I find, helps to keep my mind alert and relaxed; it pleases me and warms the atmosphere, yet it leaves me free to focus on the task at hand.
There are a surprisingly large number of good random noise generators for Mac OS X. Yet most of them do not quite fit my needs. Jon Klein's Musik makes random notes, but uses just one instrument, and patterns rapidly start to emerge, so that it quickly becomes boring and annoying at the same time. (Klein is best known for his remarkable cross-platform Breve artificial-life simulation environment.) Composer Karlheinz Essl is single-handedly responsible for several interesting real-time music-generation applications. His FontanaMixer is an attempt to recreate a famous aleatory John Cage piece; it's remarkable, but it grabs most of your CPU, making it hard to get anything else done, and its sounds are raspy and clanky, involve a human voice, and are mixed with long periods of silence, as if someone were muttering while sorting through the garbage cans in an alley - not exactly conducive to great expository writing. His Seelewaschen is also quite CPU-heavy, visibly slowing down my typing rate; it involves a tolling bell reprocessed to give various raspy, chirpy effects - sobering, but not relaxing. Much more to my taste is Essl's now classic LexikonSonate, which plays a random but extremely musical and sophisticated piano; it stops and starts rather a lot, though, and the piano sound is rather percussive. Besides, the very qualities that make its output musically brilliant and intriguing militate against its use as subconscious background - it makes me want to listen.
Make the Mood -- By this point you're probably thinking to yourself: "I see what this fellow is after. He wants something more along the lines of Music From the Hearts of Space - hippy-dippy, mellow, environmental earwash. He wants ambient music." You're right; I do. That isn't at all the kind of music I like to listen to, but it's the kind of music I want playing when I don't want to listen. And that's why my favorite background random noise program is presently SonicMood, from Bit of Paradise Products.
SonicMood has all the right elements for me. It uses pleasant QuickTime instrument sounds, combined into small, gentle ensembles (no more than three different kinds of instruments), playing long tones in a variety of modes (scales), sometimes sounding rather like a cross between foghorns in a harbor and Palestrina on drugs. Each combination of parameters - number and choice of instruments, maximum polyphony, average duration and pause, amplitude range, and mode - is called a Mood, and you can edit existing Moods and create new ones. Not only is each Mood random, within its parameters, but SonicMood also cycles through its Moods, randomly or sequentially, at time intervals that you define. Thus SonicMood provides an ever-changing kaleidoscope of unobtrusive sound environments - and if you do find any of the moods objectionable, you can simply eliminate it. (SonicMood can also display images, but this isn't a feature I use; in fact, I usually hide SonicMood completely right after starting it up.)
SonicMood might not be everyone's cup of tea, but surely I can't be the only person in the world who occasionally wants this sort of sound to emanate from the computer, and in any case it has certainly been helpful to me in my work, and therefore, quite directly, to TidBITS. So, in the class of Tools We Use, I recommend it to your attention. The developer, John R. Hall, is very responsive to suggestions; he quickly added a Dock menu at my request, so that I could pause and start SonicMood without making it visible. SonicMood is just $10, with a 30-day free demo trial period, and is available for both Mac OS X and Mac OS 9; version 2.0 is available now, and version 3.0 should be released shortly.
Article 15 of 17 in series
by Jeff Carlson
At Macworld Expo last month, Peachpit Press included a presentation area as part of their booth. In addition to letting authors like me demonstrate techniques found in our books, the area was used by Apple and the National Association of Photoshop Professionals for hands-on training sessionsShow full article
At Macworld Expo last month, Peachpit Press included a presentation area as part of their booth. In addition to letting authors like me demonstrate techniques found in our books, the area was used by Apple and the National Association of Photoshop Professionals for hands-on training sessions. It sported a Power Mac G5 hooked up to a fairly large projector that showed the Mac's screen large enough for people to see.
The problem with setups like this is that it's sometimes difficult to follow the mouse pointer as the presenter performs actions. In this case, it was often easier for me to take a step to the left and point out some iMovie interface elements using my hands, but of course then I wasn't using the computer, so nothing was happening on screen. The problem is exacerbated on much larger screens, especially when demonstrating applications (such as Final Cut Pro or Adobe Photoshop) that have a plethora of windows, palettes, and other interface elements. In the past, presenters would often move the mouse pointer in circles to highlight an element - leading, at least in my case, to tired eyeballs trying to track the swirling cursor.
PinPoint -- This year, however, the folks who set up the presentation Mac added a tiny detail that made it twice as easy to follow along: a small red circle surrounding the mouse pointer at all times, courtesy of MacChampion's PinPoint 2.1. This little Mac OS X utility lets you change the size, color, transparency, and shape of the cursor highlight; in addition to the seven built-in shapes, you can download others such as arrows or even Halloween images from the company's Web site. You can set it to always display, or show up after a set amount of time to locate it easily when you step away from your computer. PinPoint 2.1 costs $10 normally, but is available for free to visually impaired persons (though the free version cannot import new highlight shapes); it's a 1.7 MB download.
Mouseposé -- If you don't need to give presentations, but get frustrated when your mouse pointer disappears (darn those dual 30-inch Apple Cinema Displays!), another simple utility that can help is Boinx Software's Mouseposé (that's "mouse-po-zay" with an accented E at the end). When you hit a function key, this application dims the screen except for a circular area around the mouse pointer. You can change the size of the circle, as well as the opacity and color used to mask the rest of the screen. The effect stays on for a certain amount of time, or until you manually turn it off.
One disadvantage of Mouseposé is that you can only choose a function key as a trigger, which makes it a little more awkward on laptops or for people who launch applications using their F-keys. It's also not as useful for presentations when you need to see the screen as a whole (though setting the opacity at its lowest setting is still functional, even if the screen is slightly darker overall). Still, Mouseposé is simple, effective, and is a free 255K download; it requires Mac OS X 10.3 or higher.
Article 16 of 17 in series
by Matt Neuburg
I've recently discovered DropCopy, from 10base-t Interactive. This little utility's "window" is a small translucent dark spot, rather like a hole, that sits behind all other applications (and behind your desktop Finder icons)Show full article
I've recently discovered DropCopy, from 10base-t Interactive. This little utility's "window" is a small translucent dark spot, rather like a hole, that sits behind all other applications (and behind your desktop Finder icons). Drag a file or folder onto this hole, and a menu appears next to it, listing the names of any other computers on your local network that are also running DropCopy. Continue dragging onto an item of that menu, and the file or folder is copied to that computer.
You could use Personal File Sharing to accomplish the same thing, of course, but DropCopy feels far more lightweight: you don't need to turn File Sharing on, you don't need a username and password, you don't need to log on or open any remote Finder windows, you don't need to worry about permissions. Instead, DropCopy uses Bonjour (formerly known as Rendezvous) for auto-discovery and data transfer. You could use iChat, but you'd need to arrange multiple screen names to avoid the "multiple logins" problem, and you'd have to be at both computers at once (one to send the file and the other to accept it). With DropCopy, you just send a file into the hole and it's on its way. For just popping an occasional Finder item over to another computer, DropCopy is simply perfect.
DropCopy also lets you post a text message dialog to another computer, and you can even fetch the contents of another computer's clipboard. (Back in the old Mac OS 8.6 days, I wrote some gruesome AppleScript tools to accomplish that.) If you've got more than one computer on your local network, even if there's just one human user, you'll probably find DropCopy a huge time-saver. The interface is delightful (I love the animation as the hole darkens and lightens while a file passes through it), and the price (free!) is right.
Article 17 of 17 in series
by Jeff Carlson
Part of writing about the Mac involves taking screenshots - lots and lots of screenshots. Anyone can snap a screenshot by pressing Command-3 to capture the entire screen or Command-4 to specify an area to be captured, but when you're creating hundreds of images, those tools are too bluntShow full article
Part of writing about the Mac involves taking screenshots - lots and lots of screenshots. Anyone can snap a screenshot by pressing Command-3 to capture the entire screen or Command-4 to specify an area to be captured, but when you're creating hundreds of images, those tools are too blunt. Instead, I use Ambrosia Software's excellent Snapz Pro X, which offers much more control over what can be saved: the entire screen, a window or object (such as a single pop-up menu), or a user-defined rectangle (both for still images and movies). For the most part, I use the object capture feature to grab stuff like the iMovie interface or System Preferences window.
When Apple introduced Mac OS X, however, it threw a kink into this screenshot system: unlike Mac OS 9, windows in the Aqua interface have no borders; they're defined by their content and a drop shadow that makes them appear as if they're floating above other windows. When I would take a screenshot using Snapz Pro X's object-level capture, the drop shadow isn't included, which often led to a problem when a white dialog (such as the System Preferences window) would be printed on a white page: with no definite borders, the image can be confusing. Ambrosia introduced the capability to specify several border types as a result, including a Drop Shadow option, but it's a bit darker than the Aqua version; it also can't be used when I need to build a screenshot that includes more than one window, since applying the Snapz Pro X drop shadow would create the shadow around the entire capture area, not to each element.
One method of capturing native Aqua shadows has been to position a blank Microsoft Word (or other word processor) document behind the objects I want to grab, or set my Finder desktop image to white. But those options are clumsy. Instead, for a recent project I used John Haney's free Backdrop 1.4, a 103K download.
When I need to capture a screen, I bring Backdrop to the front, which obscures my other applications, and then click the program I need to shoot so that it's the frontmost application. Then I invoke Snapz Pro X. It's that simple.
Backdrop works well with multiple monitors, so I'm able to use my PowerBook's screen (my secondary display) for capturing images and my Dell 2005FPW monitor (my primary display) to work in Word, InDesign, or another application. In fact, Backdrop's preferences enable you to specify whether the program works on all displays or just one (it recognizes up to five).
You can also control whether Backdrop sits between applications as if it's just another program (which it is) or if it blanks out the desktop image and leaves icons visible (thereby saving you the trouble of switching in and out of the Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane).
And you're not limited to white. You can set any color as your backdrop. There are also a collection of Pixel Test colors (red, green, blue, black, white) to help you spot-check the quality of your monitor.
Finally, you can choose to display images. How is that different from setting a desktop image? You can create a reference image such as rectangles denoting common Web screen dimensions. For example, as I'm updating my book iMovie HD 6 & iDVD 6 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide, I'm using this feature to maintain a consistent iMovie window size.
I'm also tempted to try using Backdrop as an anti-distraction agent, as Merlin Mann recently suggested on his 43 Folders site, which focuses on time-management techniques such as the David Allen's Getting Things Done system.
As I mentioned, Backdrop 1.4 is a free utility, and it's recently been updated as a universal binary to run natively on Intel-powered Macs.