Friday, September 29, 2006

Utilities for the Mac

The first Macintosh computer I used was an Apple IIe, in elementary school; though I barely remember it, my impressions of it are reasonably positive (probably because it was on the Apple IIe's that we played Oregon Trail, at which I used to be pretty good). The next time I used a Macintosh, I think it must have been running one of the very early versions of Mac OS -- System 7, or whatever was out around the midlife of Windows 3.1 -- and I really, really hated the interface. I can't remember what it was that bugged me so much -- it may just have been something as simple as the inability to, or my inability to figure out how to, minimise a window (I mean, really minimise, so it's out of sight, rather than collapsing it to that little 'curtain rod' menu bar) -- but this short interaction was enough to convince me that I didn't want to use a Macintosh ever again. Thus it was that the first three computers I bought for myself (in 1998, 2003, and -- when I realised that buying a cheap used computer, even one much faster than my 1998 system, hadn't been that bright an idea -- 2003 again) were all PCs (all Dells, in fact) 1.

Shortly after buying the last of those computers, I began noticing, straining my keen powers of observation to their fullest, that lots of people were carrying around small computers, computer much smaller than mine, computers that could fit on their laps -- 'top-o-the-lappers', I think the kids call them; or just 'neuterers' for short -- and realised that I wanted one of them. (It was not just that I coveted Sexy Small Technology; the main motivating factor -- really! -- was that the people with laptops could access the wireless networks that were frequently present at homeworks in order easily to check their mail, whereas I had to join the feral masses squabbling for use of the one slow terminal allocated for guests' e-mail checking.) Proactive go-getter that I am, I did nothing about this until the fall of 2004, at which point, swinging promptly into action, I whinged to all and sundry that I wanted a laptop (because, you know, maybe the Laptop Fairy was listening). "Yes, yes, so get one and shut up about it, OK?" was all that most people said; but my mentor, S, had some more definite advice: "Yes, yes," said he, "so get one and shut up about it, OK? -- but make sure you get a Mac." I made the gagging and choking noises I thought were appropriate, but he was effusive in his endorsement, and I began seriously to consider it. Once again a bold decisiveness carried me through, and it only took me until the summer of 2005 actually to get around to buying the computer, which is (as I hinted above) a Powerbook. (In case, dear reader, you find in reading this précis that it is unacceptably brief and curt, and cry out, exasperated, "Where, Loren, are the details, the real meat of this fascinating story?", I encourage you to visit my post The amazing dexterity of Loren from several months ago and scroll down several paragraphs; having done which, you will find all -- well, some -- of your desires satiated.)

Dear reader, you, faithful as you are, remember the title of this post, which is "Utilities for the Mac". I pondered expressing my admiration for these objects by calling them "useful utilities for the Mac", but fortunately realised that this was redundant and backed away from the precipice. (I do wonder what to call a small program which does not serve any desired purpose -- an 'inutility'?). While, I can tell even as I write this, you are reeling in admiration of my dramatic storytelling ability, not to mention of the profusion of footnotes unaccountably linking amongst themselves, I know that you must be wondering (but guiltily) "Is this really the topic of this post? Do these sentences, gorgeously well-crafted as they are, describe utilities for the Mac?" Your instincts do not lead you astray. I have not, so far, addressed the title of this post. The reasons for this are two.

  1. My previous post was only two sentences long, and at that consisted only of a link to external content. Were I to make another post with little content, you might think that this blog was turning into a link farm, or that the aliens had come and replaced me with someone who could craft readable sentences.
  2. We cannot just hand out potent utilities willy-nilly. We must first weed out the weak, and there is no surer way to do this than to subject them to mind-numbing paragraphs of text. You, the strong, have come this far (unless you scrolled down, cheating natural selection); it is for you that I record these links.

Now on to the utilities themselves. When I got the Mac, I struggled to learn in one swoop the analogues of the many keyboard shortcuts the knowledge of which I had gradually accumulated on the PC, and without which I felt I could not go on. By dint of such strategies as posting comments on Slashdot saying that one couldn't do certain things on the Mac using a keyboard, I was able quickly to find out how to do the most important things, but one task (whether executed by keyboard or by mouse) eluded me -- how to 'cut' (rather than 'copy') a file in Finder? I noticed the item was greyed out in the menu bar, but assumed that a little cleverness would lead me to a solution. It did not, and, since one of the items I saw mentioned (before the WWDC) in a guess-list for Leopard features was "cut capability in Finder", I think it is not just that my ignorance has blinded me to a well-known solution. There's always the old "drag it to the desktop, then drag it to the target folder" strategy, and similar kludges, but these don't work well if, for example, one wishes to cut a large file on a remote volume. Thankfully, khsu (to whom I must say: "Bless you") is more dedicated to finding a solution than I, and he (or she, or it) provides the heaven-sent utility XShelf to simulate the desired functionality. Setting aside the slight problem of trying to write into a write-protected folder (XShelf doesn't wait for one to authenticate properly -- as soon as it sees that there's any problem with writing, it dumps the desired file off the shelf and back into its original location), this is just what I have long desired.

The other utility is less commonly useful; but, when I need it, I am very glad to have it. This is timdoug's unpkg. The purpose of this utility is very simple -- as the name suggests, it unpackages a .pkg file, leaving one to handle for oneself the important task of, say, copying an application into the /Applications folder, or a library to the /Library folder. (If you want to unpackage a .mpkg file, you still need the non-free Pacifist.) Since I like to have control over what's happening on my computer (not least so that I can know what changes need to be backed up), and also since I like to keep my applications organised in subdirectories rather than in a single flat applications directory, this has been extremely helpful to me.

1 I've finally figured out how to cause the underlining for the footnote links to appear immediately underneath the footnote number, not at the baseline of the surrounding text! (For those of you as stupid as I was, it's <sup><a href="#blah">1</a></sup> instead of <a href="#blah"><sup>1</sup></a> 3.) Now to retcon all previous footnotes into conformance (or, perhaps, conformity)! That happy ejaculation, though, was not the point of the original footnote which you, dear reader, followed to get here; rather than cramming two distinct points into a single footnote, I will instead direct you to the next footnote (which is so debased that it doesn't even get a usual footnote-style link, only that inline link).
2 Although this morsel of embarrassment doesn't really fit into the body of the post above, I cannot leave it out. My wife, who is knowledgeable about computers but, unaccountably, doesn't have the feeling that her penis shrivels whenever she admits there's something she doesn't know, occasionally humours me when I behave as if I have great technological knowledge to impart to her. When my newest PC was shipped, I opened the box and, as I removed its contents, explained to her, in what must have been insulting detail, how miniaturisation allowed one to make minitowers, such as (and here I pointed) this one we have just been shipped, instead of full-size towers such as was my 1998 computer. (Let us set aside the fact that, probably, minitowers have been around for a long time -- I looked just now, but couldn't find any references -- and simply take the statement on its own merits.) I was embarrassingly far into my disquisition before I realised that what I was holding was the subwoofer, not the computer 4 (which, when it was finally shipped, turned out to be a full-sized tower).
3 There must be a better way to insert literal HTML source code into one's document than escaping every < and > as &lt; and &gt;, but a search for 'literal + HTML' and 'verbatim + HTML' did not reveal it.
4 I was very pleased when, in a recent episode of Alias -- I mean, an episode I saw recently, not one that was released recently (in fact it was from the first season) -- Jennifer Garner, armed with a device which "sucks all the data out of a hard drive" from a distance of a few inches, broke into her adversary's office and placed the device on the computer, not on the monitor. (To be fair, since this is a post extolling Macs, I should acknowledge that the distinction between computer and monitor on an iMac is blurred; but this machine was visibly a PC.) My admiration was only slightly dulled by a later episode in which a visiting dignitary was described on a computer display as a 'parlimentary delegate'.


Blogger i149 said...

for some reason, a lot of my friends insist on using XP on an HP or sometimes (horror!) a Dell. they use Internet Explorer and open multiple windows instead of tabs. and they use webmail. what do i do with such infidels?

3:14 pm  
Blogger Loren said...

I hate to let down one of my loyal readers (yes, it's plural -- there are at least two people who have visited twice), but, in the dark days when I, too, had a PC, it was also a Dell -- in fact I seem already to have mentioned that in the body of the post. (To be perfectly honest, I still have this PC, but rather than occupying its accustomed place of honour beneath my desk -- notice the studiousness with which I avoid even a hint of innuendo? -- it now sits in the corner, a plastic bag stuffed into the gaping wound from which I cruelly ripped the DVD-R drive.)

I also long used Internet Explorer, but only until someone said to me "You must try Firefox" (although, to show my age, back then it was still called Phoenix). I tried it and never looked back, especially once I discovered the magic of extensions (where would I be without Adblock?). Since then, it seems to me that the main hurdle in getting people to use Firefox is getting them to try it -- once that's done, few go back.

I'm not sure what's wrong with webmail. I enjoy having a work account at which to get my 'professional' mail (penis enlargement being important in my line of work), but it's also a great convenience to have anonymous addresses available to share with websites for which Bugmenot hasn't any passwords, or acquaintances not ready to be inducted into the here's-my-real-e-mail-address hall of fame.

9:49 pm  

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