I’ve recently been trying to track down a curious formatting problem in TidBITS issues and could use your help. This installment of LittleBITS also gives me a chance to explain why I haven’t written more about ransomware (while sharing two useful tools for protecting against it if you are worried) and loop back to an article I wrote about utilities that go beyond Live Text in offering OCR for text in images.
Have You Seen the One-Character Column Bug?
Here’s a quirky bug. Now and then, we get a report from a reader whose TidBITS issue has an entire article formatted as a column of text that’s a single character wide. I could tell what happened in at least two cases, but I’m utterly stumped as to what might be causing it. The problem doesn’t appear to originate on our end.
In one report where the reader forwarded the badly formatted issue to us, the problem stemmed from CSS corruption. The CSS styling for TidBITS email issues uses
style="padding: 0.25em" repeatedly, but in one munged article, that had been changed to
style="padding:25em". In other words, the characters
: 0. were deleted for that article, turning 0.25em into 25em and transforming a slight indent into a massive one. In another example, just the period was deleted, resulting in
style="padding: 025em", which was also interpreted as 25em. In both cases, I confirmed that everything was correct in the version I received.
How could such a thing happen? If it were a one-off problem, I’d chalk it up to a communications error somewhere along the way. But we’ve had several reports of it in the last two weeks from different people. One of them said he’d seen it before as well, each time in macOS 10.13 High Sierra and its version of Mail. Another said he saw the same problem with the issue on his iPhone and iPad. It’s hard to imagine a Mail bug affecting so few people, but it’s similarly difficult to imagine cosmic rays zapping that particular CSS attribute more than once.
If you’ve seen this problem, please forward me a corrupted issue and let me know what operating system versions you use, if you rely on Mail or another email client, and who your email service provider is so we can do some tech sleuthing together. Thanks!
RansomWhere and Retrospect Protect against Ransomware
There have been a bunch of high-profile ransomware attacks in 2021, most notably Colonial Pipeline. I have long been thinking about writing more about the trend but couldn’t motivate myself to do a big article for two reasons. First, although ransomware isn’t unknown on the Mac, it’s not a real-world threat to Mac users at this point, with most examples being incomplete or badly coded. It’s easy to say that ransomware attacks could escalate on the Mac (and many publications do) because there’s nowhere to go but up, but I don’t like to encourage paranoia. Second, most ransomware attacks have targeted businesses, not the individuals who comprise the bulk of the TidBITS audience. In other words, why write much of anything in TidBITS about issues important primarily to Windows enterprise users? That said, two Mac apps are doing interesting things in this area.
First is Patrick Wardle’s free RansomWhere, which takes a mathematical approach to thwart possible future instances of Mac-specific ransomware. Most ransomware works by encrypting your files silently in the background and then demanding that you pay up sometime later. In an effort to detect such behavior, RansomWhere monitors for untrusted processes that start quickly creating files that appear to be encrypted. When it detects one, it displays a dialog and lets you terminate the offending process or allow it to continue if it’s a false alarm. Since I installed it in May 2021, it has flagged some concerning processes, but all were clearly legitimate when I looked at the names and paths reported: Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Reader, Backblaze, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and SuperDuper. RansomWhere is sufficiently unobtrusive that I’m happy to keep it running, even knowing that future Mac ransomware could explicitly avoid its checks.
Second is the long-standing Retrospect backup app. Backups are the solution to many problems, and ransomware is one of them—if you fall prey to a ransomware attack but can just restore from backup, you won’t need to pay up. To block that approach, ransomware works silently in the background for quite some time to ensure that your backups are full of useless encrypted data. It also often attacks backups directly to prevent restoration.
To protect its backed-up data, Retrospect 18 added support for a cloud storage feature called Cloud Object Lock, informally known as immutable storage. It replicates a type of physical storage called WORM (write once read many)—think CD-R and DVD-R drives. With Cloud Object Lock enabled for Retrospect backups on a compatible cloud storage provider (Amazon S3, Backblaze B2, Google Cloud Storage, Microsoft Azure Blob Storage, MinIO, and Wasabi), you can set a retention policy that specifies for how long a particular backup is locked against changes by any user, including ransomware that may have acquired root-level privileges. Even if ransomware does encrypt your working data and renders backups from that point on useless, the historical backups cannot be deleted, overwritten, or corrupted in any way.
More Text in Image Recognition Utilities
A few months ago, I wrote “Work with Text in Images with TextSniper and Photos Search” (23 August 2021) about a couple of apps that played in the space that was soon to be occupied by Apple’s Live Text feature (which we later covered in “Digitize Any Text with Live Text in iOS 15 and iPadOS 15,” 4 October 2021). TextSniper lets you copy text from images on the Mac, and Photos Search enables you to search for text detected in photos in iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. What I hadn’t internalized when I wrote that article is what Bob Stern noted in the comments—that these features were due to Apple making its OCR engine available to developers last year in the Text Recognition part of the Vision framework. Thanks to that support, quite a few other apps have added OCR features, including these:
- LiveScan: This Mac and iOS app from Gentleman Coders, the company behind the RAW Power photo editing utility for RAW images, lets you capture text from anywhere on your screen, much like TextSniper. It comes with 14 actions, and you can add plug-ins for custom workflows. It’s $9.99 for lifetime access, or you can subscribe for $0.99 per month or $5.99 per year. As with TextSniper, the big win with LiveScan is being able to capture text from any app at any time, such as with slides in videoconferencing. And, of course, it runs in macOS 11 Big Sur, whereas Live Text is limited to macOS 12 Monterey.
- Orga: As you’d expect from its inclusion in this list, the free Orga can identify text in images for copying and pasting, and it lets you search for text in images. However, it’s more generally billed as a “private photo vault” because its AI image recognition goes beyond text to nudity, letting users employ “customizable nudity detection sensitivity” when scrubbing NSFW images from the Photos app and moving them into Orga. Orga may be fully encrypted and password-protected, but I’d still suggest that public figures refrain from engaging in career-limiting photographic predilections.
- CleanShot X: While TextSniper and LiveScan are focused on text identification, CleanShot X is a powerful tool for capturing screenshots and videos that recently added text capture as well. Just invoke it, drag a rectangle around the text, and CleanShot X copies it to the clipboard. I’m embarrassed that I failed to notice this feature earlier since CleanShot X is my preferred screenshot utility these days, thanks to its plethora of options and annotation capabilities. It’s $29 and is also available in Setapp.
- Nisus Writer Pro: One thing I miss about writing and editing Take Control books is the opportunity to use the feature-laden Nisus Writer Pro word processor. To make it even more powerful, an update last year added the capability to perform OCR on imported images. It works much like the other utilities, and it’s particularly convenient to clean up the captured text right in Nisus Writer Pro, with its full-featured PowerFind Pro regular expression searches.
- TextBuddy: Speaking of cleaning up text, if you’re intimidated by regular expressions in Nisus Writer Pro or BBEdit, the TextBuddy utility encapsulates over 100 common text-manipulation actions. Alongside those actions is the capability to extract text from images or capture text in the viewfinder of your iPhone’s camera. More unusual is a feature that detects text content in audio files—it has to “play” the file internally, so it’s not quick, but it might be a good way to get started on a transcript without subscribing to the impressive but pricey Otter.ai. TextBuddy is free but has optional licenses.
That’s it for this week, and I’ll keep collecting little bits worth sharing.