Finally, my NewsMacPro 1.2 comments

Well, it’s been too long coming, really. This post is really just a way to give feedback to the developer of NewsMacPro while making sure I don’t just jot down some half-baked thoughts in an email and send them off. Not that my writing up here is much better…

First off, the slightly later than expected (by me, at least) version 1.2 is a huge improvement over the version that received a less than glowing review in a sort-of recent feed reader round-up. The icon is better, and a huge amount of interface clutter has been removed. Furthermore, it now has tabs, so the browser is actually almost useable on its own. (Cf. John Siracusa’s comments that often he spends all his time browsing in NetNewsWire.)

So the interface in general is really nice, but as a whole there are still some rough spots in the application. The reason I’m sticking with the program is that (a) I spent money on it in an impulse buy — it was a good price! — and (b) as an Australian, I guess I’m supposed to “root for the underdog”, to use an American phrase.


My biggest complaint is general stability; I’ve had some crashes and other odd behaviour that still haven’t entirely been ironed out with the point-point bug fixes. It’s quietened down a lot, though, so it’s generally useable. Sometimes not, though, which is disappointing.

Interface quirks

While the visual design of the interface is very nice, the behaviour of the interface, something equally as important, has a couple of unexpected quirks that need to be ironed out.

CMD-W doesn’t close the tab you’re in, it closes the entire window. That’s totally counter-intuitive — I never wish to close the window, anyway, but at most CMD-W should only do so when there are no more tabs open.

There is no “open in background tab” method (that I can find), which is an odd oversight. Middle mouse click or CTRL+click should do so, like every other browser (with tabs) on earth.

Closing a tab selects the next one to the left. This is counter to accepted practise in Safari et al. Furthermore, tab closing is a mouse down event? It should so be mouseup.

Tabs should be dragable. Sorry, that’s just the way it should be these days. Even FireFox lets you…

The three interface layouts are nice to offer, but on a 12 inch PowerBook, there’s really only one that is suitable: Traditional View. By the way, the menu items to switch between views should be ticked to should the currently selected.

The biggest problem I have with NewsMac Pro is that it allows smart folders, but they don’t update until you click on them. There’s little point having an “unread” folder that only tells you how many unread channels there are until you click on it!

Holding down option should allow you to create a smart folder when clicking on the “+” = “add folder” button.

Finally, there seem to be two “Mark unread” items in the contextual menu on a headline?


It would be incredibly helpful to have a “next unread channel” button/shortcut, (unless I’ve missed one that already exists).

While it’s nice to have metadata for channels, and nicer to have smart folders for organising, it’s really just a pain to set up. For example, I’d like to tag all of my channels by category, such as “Apple”, “Web”, and “People”, for example, and then have smart folders that will group unread messages for each so I can segregate my reading to specific topics at specific times. In addition, I’d like to be able to browse through the channels to which I’m subscribed, again sorted by category.

So to get something like this, I need to create two sets of smart folders, with smart searches for every single category in both unread and all-read states. As a solution to the tedium of performing this, keyword folders could be created on the fly as new keywords are added to headlines. Think of it as browsing by metadata, which all apps should provide.


I haven’t really tried out any other commercial feed reading software. This app is nice, but has a way to go before it’s perfect. I do enjoy using it, and I hope my criticism isn’t taken too strongly — it’s very likely that I couldn’t do what Rory Prior has done; it’s a lot easier to complain when you’re not the one programming the thing!

In closing, best wishes for the future! I’m looking forward to it.


CSS for dummies

I’ve only a little time, so I’ll begin by including verbatim the couple of notes I jotted down when these thoughts came to mind. Yes, I am embarrassed it’s taken me so long to write more in here.

  • What’s the deal with all this CSS stuff?
  • How much more powerful is it than LaTeX or ConTeXt?
  • Why is its power so surprising to people?
  • How on earth did a committee design a language that no-one has full master of?
  • Do browser quirks make it the most annoying thing in the world?
  • Is 2006 the year that browser quirks are no longer a problem?

Some of those questions will be inflammatory, but I assure you some of them aren’t as daft as they sound without context. So, this was all inspired by an article I read, linked by John Gruber, on re-arrangeable blocks in CSS that the author terms “the One True Layout”.

Now, don’t get me wrong with the tone of the first question I posed above. I’m incredibly impressed with one of the examples, “Nest Rounded Corners”. When you consider that the page uses logical markup, that’s one nice feat of document engineering, if you’ll pardon the expression.

But when I tried out CSS a year or so ago, this example wouldn’t have surprised me. I’m impressed that browser support is now good enough that this kind of thing can be done, but I’m confused about the reaction from the public on the technique. Is it amazing because of the browser support or because of the CSS?

I guess because it’s such a new field, things like this push back the envelope of what’s possible simply because everything is new and the potential of CSS has not yet been realised.

One of the things I don’t understand is how the W3C can invent CSS without having a reference implementation, and without anyone (seemingly) having any idea of the upper limits of its success. I suppose the same thing is true of a programming language, though, so I probably shouldn’t be bothered by it.

Another thing I don’t understand is that although they claim to be writing logical markup, at these extremes the layout is fairly hard-wired into the XHTML. Check out the following source snippet:

<div id="wrapper">
<div id="group_1-8">
<div id="group_1-6">
<div id="group_1-5">
<div id="group_1-3">
<div id="block_1">
<div class="verticalalign"> ... </div>
<div id="block_2">
<div class="verticalalign"> ... </div>
<div id="block_3">
<div class="verticalalign"> ... </div>
</div><!-- close div#group_1-3 -->
<div id="group_4-5">
<div id="block_4">

I admit that it’s orders of magnitude better than anything the web has seen previously. And it might look better with real world text and decent indenting. But the fact that everything has to be nested and the CSS values have to be hand-calculated makes the whole thing a lot more cumbersome than I would expect given the ravings of the community about the separation of semantic and presentational markup.

I don’t want to thing about the coding details, but it would be possible in some TeX-based format to write something like this:


But again, the layout would be hard-coded and actually getting to this stage in the implementation would be a nightmare (well, for me at least :)). It would have the advantage, however, that the source makes absolutely no reference to the layout of the final document, which isn’t exactly the case in the XHTML. In comparison with the implementation, however, it is a comparative piece of cake to do the layout in CSS.

Anyway, the whole thing’s getting to the stage where I think people have been dreaming about, and it does seem like Safari and FireFox (and Opera) are now emerging as very very powerful document renderers. With IE7 beta due out next year soon-ish, which had better have some measure of parity with those aforementioned, I have high hopes that 2006 will be the year that CSS techniques become mainstream, after 2005’s blossoming.


Five minute hammer

[ Retroactive disclaimer: Posts like these really are for my own benefit. I doubt they’re much of interest to anybody. It’s just a bit of introspection and practice of putting words on a page, if you’ll allow me. I’m really keen on developing the skills to write something in 10 minutes that doesn’t require too much revising or proof-reading. ]

I don’t think I’m all bad, really. When I’m by myself just thinking, I do get excited by the project I’m doing. It’s just that when I’m working, I have created an environment for myself that’s so conducive to distraction. And the problem there is that it’s hard to do work.

When I was an undergrad, I worked literally as little as I could to still get by. That’s not the entire truth, since I didn’t do too badly, but I was never passionate about any of the things I was learning (in the same way that I get obsessed with other things, if you get my meaning), and I didn’t learn the basics as well as I should have. People complain about pattern-recognition rote-learners. I guess I was a little bit like one of them. I just feel that my pattern matching is flexible enough to cope with new ideas. Which isn’t so different from understanding, right? We all rote learn in the beginning.

But here I am, and my MATLAB code looks okay but isn’t giving the right answers. Debugging it involves both checking the physics and checking the code, and I don’t really feel up to either of them at the time being. So I read the feeds, waste some time (I like collecting information, but there’s got to be a better way), then turn back to my “work” computer, realise I’m still stuck, and come back to write this because I’m feeling introspective.

I’m really enjoying writing more. In fact, I’m also really enjoying exercising more. They’re both things people say you should do, which is kind of cool, because it means people are right for a change. I’d like to start eating small meals, but I don’t think that’s as common a meme. I feel kind of pretentious using the word meme, actually, and I’m a bit embarrassed about using it. Doesn’t “idea” fit the bill almost in exactly the same way? Isn’t it always better to write without jargon? (And, if I can say anything about it, without acronyms. Damn them.)

So from now on, ‘meme’ is delegated to only specific usages about the actual replication of ideas between minds. It’s silly in all other circumstances.

I said I was going to write about Aperture and stuff, but I’ve kind of lost the motivation at present (short term only, presumably) to write about that kind of stuff. I’m happy to think that my brain is actually turning its attention more directly on the research I’m supposed to be doing, albeit in a slow and plodding manner. That’s fine by me.

Dammit. It’s getting late. I should get some work done before going home for eats. ’Til next time.

First pass edits: 
 - added parenthetical remark, ¶2
 - fixed typo, ¶4
 - added quote marks to 'meme', ¶5
 - added parenthetical remark, ¶6


Intel Mac mini: wtf?

(I make myself laugh. How on earth did I copy/paste the markdown version of this post into Blogger?)

What on earth is the deal with people thinking that the Mac mini will be the first, or among the first, Apple computer to switch to the Intel chip? It’s ridiculous!

Steve said that the Intel chip would debut in the “low-end” (or something along those lines, I’m too lazy to check). That’s clearly because the G5 is holding its own pretty well in the applications where its deployed. (In fact, I’m a bit bummed at this last minute switch because it really did seem like PowerPC was on the verge of becoming sustainable. But that’s armchair analysis for you!)

So what will be the first Intel Mac? Very very obviously, it’ll be the PowerBook. This is the computer that has been in a world of hurt for a long time now; not that they’re bad machines exactly, (ask John Gruber) just that, as J.G. says, they’ve only increased in max. clock speed by 33% in the last two years. Moore’s Law, indeed.

With an Intel PowerBook, Apple will be able to start from scratch, which I predict they’ll do, and usher in the next generation laptop that sets the scene for the next several years. Think the late G3 PowerBooks, the sexiest computers Apple’s every shipped; then the G4 PowerBooks, whose design was so good it’s still up-to-date after so many years.

At this time, Apple might bump up the iBooks to fill the performance slot of the G4 PowerBooks, but I can’t imagine them going whole hog with both brands. (Under the assumption they will keep the consumer/pro division with the laptop range. I think it’s a good idea, at least.)

Now (I just read) there’re rumours (no need to link; you know where) that Intel iBooks are rolling out in January. Nice and early I suppose, which, as someone else commented (again, where’s my link?) is a nice PR boost that they’re “ahead of schedule” even if they intended it all along.

But I just don’t see the logic in it. The PowerBooks were just updated and January’s too soon to be rolling out the next big notebook thing. So what’s the deal? It would be plain weird if Apple announces their flagship new Intel product (because this is a big thing) as a cost competitive bare-bones notebook! In conclusion, Think Secret wrong; I still expect awesome PowerBooks (or, fingers crossed, something even better like a tablet; I’m not holding my breathe, though, for a couple of reasons) as the first Intel Mac available, with the good chance of iBooks at the same time. But, ha, what do I know? I’m just an armchair analyst.

I would never have gotten into this mess if I’d just avoided Think Secret like I was supposed to. The wait’s more fun when it makes sense.

P.S. I actually just realised this post was hardly about Mac minis at all; I guess I put them in the same boat as the iBook; it might turn up at the same time, but it’ll be exactly what you expect. Why bother thinking about the inevitable as opposed to secret and exciting PowerBook developments?

OmniWeb eulogy

Well, I finally did it. I’ve been using OmniWeb for a long long time now, but I’ve finally had to say good-bye. This is my eulogy. I first used OmniWeb (in fact, I can distinctly remember the first time I even heard about it) in v4 for quite some time as my main browser in Mac OS X, even after people were complaining about its lack of standards support (it wasn’t much of an issue to me at the time, since few things seemed obviously broken to me because that was all I knew); OW’s paragraph builder was much prettier than any other, even today, I would wager. After jumping around a bit (Camino was my next browser of choice for quite some time), I then went back to the fold after Safari was released, as OmniWeb stood on its shoulders to provide the best of both worlds: standards support and an ace application. Since then, it’s had a single major update to 5.1.

So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? It was sort of the opposite, actually. OmniWeb has so many great little features that I love, I’m going to detail them here because I can. I’ve put off leaving because of all these things, and I hope I won’t miss them too much.

  • Per-site preferences really was one of the killer features for me. Being able to set the font size individually for each site you visit is so natural, because you’re never distracted by small type because it’s fixed once and for all. (This is probably more of a problem for someone using, as I am, a notebook of some kind.)

  • The tabs in OmniWeb really rock. They exist in a drawer, so they don’t use up any vertical space (another problem only with those with 1024 by 768 resolution screens or smaller). They can be rearranged at will, and even dragged between windows. Oh so nice.

  • Before syndication took over the world, I really enjoyed the way that OmniWeb would inform you whenever a site had been changed (it was so good to be able to actually know when to re-load a site — I forget what it used to be like). It worked so well for so long, that I didn’t like RSS at the beginning because I wanted to see the real web-page, dammit, not some plain-text version thereof. Especially for really beautiful websites, it’s sometimes half the experience to soak in the design while you read. (More modern feed readers tend not to suffer from this problem so much, but it’s still a bit of an issue for me.) It still galls me that what was possible in OmniWeb so long ago hasn’t been developed into a really good solution to syndication.

  • On a sour note, OmniWeb’s support for RSS was quite poor, at best, and only really worked for collections of, say, 50 sites at most that were updated fairly often. I did use it for a while, but NNW Lite won me over. I really hope that the OmniGroup create a really decent feed reader for v6, but I’m afraid that NNW has probably already taken all of its customers. John Siracusa admitted to using NetNewsWire as his main browser half the time because he liked nesting in the app so much, as a case in point!

  • I liked the shortcut feature for the URL address bar (e.g., type g hello to search Google for “hello”; gl I defined for “I’m feeling lucky”) but in the days of Google search fields, it’s not that relevant.

  • Finally, it was great that even if it crashed, OmniWeb would bring back your whole stack of tabs on relaunch (and I’m sad to say that crashes still did happen to it every now and then quite inexplicably; another big straw). I’m aware the saving tab functionality is now available through Safari plug-ins, so I’ll check that out ASAP as well. OmniWeb also had this weird workspace mode in which you could segregate your browsing windows by category and hide everything not currently relevant; I tried this out a few times, but never really became enamoured by the idea. Minimising works a charm, most of the time, anyway.

So, it’s over between me and OmniWeb. In a word, because it’s slow. The OmniGroup’ve really fallen behind the mark in keeping up with WebKit advances (since they had to fork the WebCore code to do all the fancy things they’ve done) and when I compare even just regular browsing between OmniWeb and Safari the difference is night and day. Don’t even ask about my crappy Java internet banking application. Dear doG.

I’m interested to check out FireFox 1.5 when it’s released, and similarly Camino. My browsing habits don’t really require that much, I guess. I’m not a web developer, I just want to read some stuff, use Google Groups, browse around, and have my passwords remembered in the Mac OS X keychain. All this kow-towing about is good for competition, but at the end of the day, there’s not too much between them any more from my point of view.

A final note on bookmarks. Now that I think of it, I haven’t been using bookmarks at all for as long as I can remember. I’ve got a whole slew of them that have been faithfully imported into Safari (Import Bookmarks..., I thank you) from years ago, but generally now it’s just as easy to search Google.

Looking through some what’s in there, I realise that there’s a whole bunch of information that I’ve read and thought was interesting, so I’ve left a reminder to myself that I like it. I would much prefer to have this information stored offline, so it would be searchable and properly browse-able, but I’m not sure that there are any programs that will do this nicely for me. Something to think about, for sure…

That’s me, anyway, on ditching OmniWeb. It’s of right now, so if I change my mind tomorrow, I’ll have to recant some of the things I just said. But don’t worry, OmniGroup; I’ll come back to you if you show decent improvements in the future (I did pay for a license, after all).


Programming memes within Apple

I’ve been very interested to read some pre-release information about Aperture, a professional program for photographers that I will likely never use. Why do I care?

Put simply, Apple is a pretty small company in some ways. It wouldn’t surprise me (in fact, I conjecture) that programmers or small teams of programmers are incrementally assigned to different areas of Apple’s software division. That is, one person will work on more than one application. This is intuitive to anyone that has noticed the discrepancy between the quality of, say, Mail.app & Finder to Pages & Keynote.

I’d bet Mail and (the) Finder are written by the same teams, given the shoddy finish and numerous bugs that boths apps have. (We know already that the iWork apps are written as one.)

Now, I don’t know to what extent the programmers in the professional apps division cross over to the core side of the fence, but, also given the relatively few updates the professional apps receive, I’d also suggest that some of Apple’s best programmers move around a little bit between various projects. At least, if this were the case, one would hope that the OS itself isn’t being written by the people that maintain (the) Finder.

So when a new professional app comes on the scene, it’s good to take note of whatever built-in goodness this application contains, for it often turns up at a later date within Mac OS X itself. In fact, this needn’t be restricted to the pro apps; in Mac OS X 10.2, Preview was crappy. Come 10.3, it had been re-written, was ace, but had no programming interface to access all the goodness (I mentioned this previously, now that I think about it). Finally, Apple rolled nice PDF features into PDFKit in 10.4, which was one of my most compelling upgrade reasons.

This isn’t an isolated example. Apple applications can sometimes be considered functionality test-beds, where they implement some new features and see how they go. This gives a snapshot of where Apple’s minds are looking at this particular time. If all goes well, the other apps will want to use the goodness as well, and it is baked into Mac OS X itself. Or similar trends continue in other areas of application development. Not all programming instances are just something to be eventually rolled into the system.

When Motion was released, it was clear that it was doing something shit hot in order to be able to keep up with the graphical load. After the announcement, we learn about things like Core Image & Video, and Quartz doing ace things with graphics cards. (Described by Siracusa, disabled for good in 10.4.3, for an expected re-appearance in Mac OS X 10.5.)

Similarly, iPhoto’s “darth vader” editing panel seems to be the natural progression of an interface first (I believe) seen in Motion (bottom right on that page).

In the meantime, the moral of today’s story I hope is clear. Apple’s programmers almost always test out their ideas in individual apps first. Let’s call them, “programming memes”, or something. If these premes are successful (mmm, not sure if I like this new word), they’ll start to show up in other areas of development. In the ideal case, the functionality or idea migrates wholesale into the operating system itself, to become a functioning block for future applications to build from.

Therefore, by looking at the forefront of Apple’s development process, which most radically is exhibited, for whatever reason (that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms), in their pro apps, we might be able to glean some insight as to where the company is going in general.

Next time: what’s new in Aperture that I hope will migrate to Mac OS X. Sorry, I hate these announcements. But I simply ran out of time to go into it here.




Who the hell thought of disk images for downloading applications? Who on earth wants to copy the file they just obtained from the desktop to their “real” hard drive?


Why the hell would I want to buy a single track from the iTunes Music Store, when I’m not subsidised if I then decide I like it and want the whole album?


Why on earth has it taken Apple so long to fix the Finder, and to improve iTunes, when Bibdesk’s exciting-ness took two part time hackers three weeks to code?


Why are all mobile phones annoying to use? And why can’t they download the time from their towers so I don’t have to set them manually and inaccurately? And why can’t predictive text pre-empt me? (Actually, I’ve seen some phones that can. But I call copyright on “pre-emptive text”, “preemptive text” and “preëmptive text” :) )


Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained

Update: small changes made to make it a little less discontinuous; I had meant to make them immediately, but Guillaume walked into my office with kidney stones. Not good.

Having just finished reading Daniel Dennet’s book Consciousness Explained, I wanted to write about it a little. I bought this book back in April, and have been reading it on-and-off until just recently, when its critical mass in my brain was large enough that I wanted to read it more heavily.

Since I’m not actually a philosopher, it’s obviously tricky for me to be objective about the arguments he puts forth; his writing style is informal and concise, and quite persuasive. It is interesting to compare his style with some of the people he quotes, who sometimes use unnecessarily long-winded and complicated words (and catch-words, unfortunately).

The trick with this sort of writing is to put the notion across clearly, something that eludes all but the best writers. Being conscious of this fact clearly makes wish to aspire to that ability, but I wouldn’t be so bold to presume I actually can write well about technical matters. (The contrast is even more pronounced in Douglas Hofstadter’s writing when he quotes long passages from the persons’ views he is objecting to, notably Searle.)

Back to the book. It covers a fascinating range of subjects, which, although all cohesive and included for a specific purpose, are almost always enjoyable without the context of the surrounding chapters. Of course, talks of “heterophenomology” will make little sense unless the reader actually has read from the beginning, but the point I am trying to make is that there aren’t chapters full of technical detail that must be waded through before coming to the interesting anecdotes and thought experiments.

Perhaps the only criticism I could raise of the structure of the book is a little too much rebuttle of the then-recent literature, which, as an outsider, added little to the discussion. For those reading the book for professional reasons, however, these chapters probably clarified (in the beginning of the book, before his ideas were fully realised) the viewpoint of Dennet himself.

I guess I should talk about what the book actually describes, which I can only sketch because I would be foolish to think that I absorbed that great an amount of the content of the book. The book lives up to its title “Consciousness Explained”, which it does by talking about the classical view of consciousness (in popular unlearned opinion), why that is wrong, and what his scheme is that explains it better.

So what isn’t consciousness? It’s not defined by a point in the brain where all the sub-conscious signals arrive and are coherently put together for the consumption by the self. Rather, it is an artificial construct, an abstraction above a chaotic mix of incoming input (from the eyes, ears, and other sensing nerves), hard-wired responses, and reactionary brain activity. It is what allows the brain to be reflective, and to be able to predict events in the future. I can’t describe it any better than that, and the point is lost, really, without actually reading the book. These words are as much for my benefit as they are yours.

The path to Dennet’s explanation of consciousness is winding and actually as interesting as the final result, since many artefacts of our consciousness manifest themselves in curious ways. This is not to belittle the “ah-ha!” moment, when it becomes apparent exactly how the rest of the book fits together to support this argument of what consciousness is. (Actually, this moment for me was a few days after finishing the book and digesting it in the background.)

I have one sentence that I remember most clearly that Dennet uses as a slogan exactly for description rather than explanation: “If I couldn’t talk to myself, how would I know what I was thinking?” This sentence, after the fact, justifies nicely the time I spend to write things in here, although recently bug reports aren’t really as satisfying as proper contemplation and analysis. This is also why I should be writing notes about my PhD every single day, so that I can actually feedback the work I’m doing into my daily thinking rather than chipping away at a mountain.

Another two points that my mind has been chewing over (and I’ll have to re-assess my usage of all such turns of phrase from now on; pretend I said “I have been chewing over” instead) is the r√¥le of evolution and memes. When you think about it, evolution seems too neat: “Why did something evolve that way? Well, because it gave that thing a better chance of survival. So how did it survive? Because it evolved that way.” Aren’t we missing something here? Not at all. It’s so perfect: evolution brought us to the exact point where we are because we are indeed here.

It’s like when the fiction of a story is questioned, and I (at least, I don’t think I’ve heard the argument from another) hypothetically retort that if the story went differently (a main character didn’t survive a lucky break, say), then it wouldn’t have been told; hence the story as told can only be written in that way. In fact, this argument is less persuasive than the case it’s trying to strengthen.

I also said I’d talk about memes. Now, I first read of memes in Hofstadter and Dennet’s (yes, same one) “The Mind’s I”, a compilation of essays and stories (with preceeding commentary by the compilers of the book) designed to bring attention to a wide variety of philosophical issues regarding the self. I can’t really do memes justice in the short amount of time I have to mention them. The argument (drawn from others, including Dawkins, whose “The Selfish Gene” introduced the actual term “memes” — this book is next on my reading list) is that memes follow the exact same laws as genes, but exist as ideas inside minds. Memes replicate, and the ones better suited to replication do so better and become more prevalent. You will spread around an idea I pass on to you if you find it imminently attractive to spread around; consider religion, exercise, jokes, the concept of memes, …

After we learned “clever tricks” early on in our evolution, our minds became sufficiently advanced that they could re-organise themselves, and the effect of memes on our life can be much more dominant these days than the effect of our genes. Through language, culture, and memes, we are capable of advancing at a much greater rate than if we were monkeys. And it’s early days yet. I’m very interested to see where we go in the course of my lifetime, to say the least.

I’m really just rambling, but I’d like a record of some of my stream of consciousness for later perusal; I hope my (zero) readers don’t take umbrage.

I’m literally amazed and incredibly envious of successful philosophers who spend their whole days reading, thinking, and writing about sometimes intangible ideas. The coherence of Dennet’s writing, and the conciseness of it, is something that I’d love to aspire to.

Two more (small) iTunes complaints

Find menu item

There is no menu item for “Find”, so the keyboard shortcut cannot be customised with System Preferences. I thought it was wrong to make the keyboard shortcut for “Find” CMD-OPT-F, but Apple has a special mention of “search fields” in the HIG. Problem #4333508.

iTunes zoom behaviour not “ideal”

Problem #4333522:


  • When the option key is held down, iTunes’ green zoom button behaves normally; that is, (quoting the Keyboard Shortcuts document from iTunes’ Help menu) used to “zoom the window to an ideal size”. In the iTunes Music Store, the page width can often be quite wide. OPT+Zoom should enlarge the window size to fit the width of the iTMS content, but it does not. This is not “ideal”.

Steps to Reproduce:

  • Open iTunes
  • Make the window a comfortable size on screen, maybe around 800x600 pixels or thereabouts.
  • Switch to the iTunes Music Store. Note that horizontal width of the store doesn’t fit in the window.
  • Hold down option and click the green zoom button of the iTunes window, or select “Zoom” from the Window menu.

Expected Results:

  • The window should enlarge to the minimum width such that there is no horizontal scroll bar.

Actual Results:

  • The window hasn’t enlarged itself sufficiently to completely contain the content of the iTMS; there is still a horizontal scroll bar visible.


BibDesk trend-setting and metadata

This is what I’ve been waiting for! Some context may be required with this sentence, I admit.

A new version of BibDesk has been released, which is a bibliography-managing application that does all its work off BibTeX-formatted files. Just a front-end, for now. In the future, they plan to abstract the file format from the bibliography format itself, to allow for nice things that are a bit kludgy or impossible when you’re simply adding plain text to a .bib file.

I didn’t get into BibDesk for a long time, primarily because it didn’t support macros; references to strings that could be changed after the fact if you need to create a bibliography with abbreviated journal titles, for example. Besides that, it didn’t seem to add too much to my experience of manually editing the .bib file by hand.

I’m not sure when the project turned from Michael McCracken’s baby into a fantastic example of open source development, but it’s really a stellar example of what is possible with some volunteers with spare time working with Cocoa.

So why am I so suddenly enthusiastic? (I’ve noticed that people closer to the project itself have in fact been similarly so for quite some time now; in anticipation, I must assume.) BibDesk deals with metadata in a way that makes sense and makes it easy, but most importantly, makes the metadata relevant. (Sorry about the emphasis overuse.)

We’ve (or I’ve) been ignoring keyword fields for years, wondering “what’s the point, really?”, even though it can help for searching quite a bit in certain circumstances. But the new BibDesk will (in real time) organise and sort bibliographic entries by arbitrary metadata, which for bibliographic entries is most usefully keywords. (It has always been possible to add extra fields to a BibTeX database, they are just silently ignored if they are unknown.) Keyword groupings will be populated as you add keywords to articles, and keywords will be added to entries that are dragged into they keyword folders. Moreover, they’re non-exclusive. Keywords of “red, exciting” will turn up in both the “red” and “exciting” groups.

You’ll note that iTunes should have had this a long time ago; iTunes is the only application I can think of that deals with metadata in anywhere near a comprehensive fashion to be note-worthy. And it falls far short of where we should be in 2005. (Note I did include this as a feature request in my iTunes complaints, but it was closed as a duplicate. If it’s a duplicate, dammit, then why didn’t they roll it into v5/6? No progress…)

I’ve seen demonstrations of this idea of metadata organisation in a Longhorn demonstration a while ago, which works for every file in your file system. (I wrote about this , among other things, at the time at MacMischief. Boy, that gig didn’t last long.) Mac OS X 10.5 has got to have some pretty fancy things up its sleeve, especially for the Finder.

Mac OS X’s Spotlight is impressive, but it solves a different problem. It helps you find; but managing metadata like BibDesk does now and like Windows Vista will is able organising information and keeping track of it. Half the point is that it allows you to add the metadata to your information that you desperately need for the Spotlight searches.

This ramble has gone long enough, given that I was due home for dinner ages ago. Anyway, in summary: new BibDesk = very impressive. It will be a trend-setter for all applications in the future dealing with metadata in a complex way. And something tells me that won’t be a small field.

iTunes' bugs revisited

Damn, running kills you. Well, at least me. I’m tired out, sweaty, and I’ve sore ankles, but actually I guess I feel kind of alright. Now, if that wasn’t the prime example of me changing my mind within a single paragraph…

Anyway, after a week and half of neglect, or something, I’m distracted enough to put together some more thoughts for nobody’s reading pleasure. Structured life, structured life—I’ll get it eventually.

I need to keep better notes of my ideas. There’s few rolling around in there, but this article is a follow up from my previous round of iTunes complaints.

Actually, I just realised that this isn’t allowed, because replies from Apple are under non-disclosure. Hopefully they don’t get too mad at me for that Preview/aliases bug from a while back.

Anyway, let’s just say that I came to the realisation that things like song lyrics and album art for a CD are copyrighted material, and hence cannot be automatically downloaded by one of Apple’s programs. They are trying to act nice with the music industry, after all.

Also, the issue of multiple metadata has been around for ages now (at least, I’m sure my idea wasn’t original) so I’m sure that someone’s bound to have requested it from Apple before now…

Finally, let’s say that iTunes’ developers and I will have to agree to disagree both on the location of the iTunes folder within the users’ library (contrary to what’s said in Apple’s own developer documentation), and to the intelligence of the user when they are trying to edit every item implicitly selected in the Browse pane. (“Thank you for your feedback. We are constantly looking for ways to acknowledge your presence while actually ignoring you.”)

I’m keen on this 10.4.3 update. So I’ve heard, the slow PDF rendering times that has made Tiger very underwhelming for me are gone! (The majority of my work on my PowerBook is with PDFs generated by (Xe)TeX) Mac OS X 10.3 performance is back again. Well, so I’m expecting.

Before I go, let me express my happiness about the Australian iTunes Music Store (that also sells Video). I’ve bought one whole song (Dualing Banjos, because it’s an absurd choice), but I’ve already noticed that the store itself is a bit clunky inside the iTunes window itself. That whole search field at the very top of the window is totally unintuitive. Move it down next to the Sign In button, please.

Ciao for now.


Random bullets 0; under-developed thoughts

I don’t have time for this. But I’m going to write a couple of paragraphs anyway. In fact, I guess they could be called “Bullet Points 0”, were I that way inclined.

  • I’ve never really worked out the whole dual core thing. Mostly because Apple weren’t selling any systems with ‘em, and I didn’t want to get too disheartened by seemingly how far in front x86 was for that particular ball park.

Two processors have been known to be very nice for a long time now; less because apps were actually using both processes and being twice as fast (although in very rare cases this could be true) but rather because two apps could be running (and would be running, in Mac OS X) on the two separate processes. Provided that the whole system bus or RAM thing wasn’t being hogged or clogged by one half, you pretty much got multitasking for free without all the crustiness that my PowerBook experiences often.

But four? Is the kernel up to that much scheduling when the task isn’t embarrassing parallel? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers.

  • I’ve started learning MetaPost. I’ve been meaning to for a long time now (well, all of this year), but it’s never been enough of a priority. Well, I’ve had the need to draw a complex picture or two so I thought I’d try it out.

My first thoughts? Ah, crap, I can’t work out how to make it do what I want. No worries; I’m sure it’s just my ineptitude.

Anyway, once I’ve sorted out MetaPost, I can later (when, or if, ever) move onto MetaFont and MetaType1, which would be lots of fun. Conceivably.

  • In order to prevent myself from distractions (like the words I’m currently writing…er, never mind), I’ve developed, but not yet implemented, a system by which I mark a piece of paper whenever I would start doing something distracting, like starting out on all those unread feeds. Of course, the mark is in lieu of actually doing the distracting, so it may not prove as compelling.

Anyway, I can collate the results per day and hopefully reduce the number of times my mind wanders off. Good luck with that, I tell myself.

  • I’ve been slightly influenced by Markdown in my latest LaTeX documents. I’ve ended up removing the special-ness of the characters & , $ , and # , and implemented a scheme whereby I can emphasise words with surrounding _ characters.

There seem to be many such areas of simplification that I hope to collate a bunch of them and put together an “easy LaTeX” package. It’s been a long time since TeX processed pages at a rate of one per minute. Let’s spend some cycles making things easier for ourselves, huh?


iTunes annoyances

If iTunes is going to claim to be under active development, then I expect a better job. Let’s spend some bug time working through things I’ve been annoyed at for quite some time. I’m glad they spent so much time honing the application in its long journey from v5 to v6. Ahem.

Persistent questioning of my resolve

With a selection in the “browser”, hitting CMD-I to make changes to the whole group (all songs in an album, all songs by an artist, all songs in a genre, respectively) brings up a dialog “Are you sure you want to do this? Cancel / Yes”.

When multiple songs are selected, the dialog that asks if you’re sure has a “Don’t ask again” checkbox; I expect the browser dialog to respect that setting; but if not (worst case scenario) it should offer its own. Who needs the confirmation in the first place, anyway? Bug ID# 4306979.


iTMS and offline info

The Window menu’s “Get CD Track Names” only works for CDs; when importing, iTunes should save the CD info required for later retrieval in offline situations. iTunes should supply its own album art and lyrics, when available in the iTunes Music Store. Even if the country I live in isn’t yet supported by the iTMS. Bug ID# 4306999.

More metadata

Give me extensible song metadata, if it’s allowed in the MP3/MP4 spec. Let me label a song’s nationality (smart playlist example: all French songs). I guess this can be done with Grouping and Comments as it stands, but it’s a bit limiting.

Multiple items of metadata

More flexible metadata. Let me assign multiple values to fields; let me assign a song to multiple genres, multiple artists, multiple albums, even. Use those nice blue things from Mail.app if you like via NSTokenField. Bug ID# 4306992.


“Show:” in the General prefpane should include “Podcasts” and “Music Store”, from the Parental pane. It makes no sense to separate them. (And who comes up with the idea that parents would want to restrict their children from listening to Podcasts? I mean, when they’re having their meeting and they could fix bugs or add this specific feature…)

The zoom button

This is quite ridiculous. This button is the most non-standard thing that Apple’s ever done, arguably. And it sucks. iTunes window too big because of screen resolution changes? Want to make it as big as possible on your small 12” PowerBook screen? You’re out of luck, sorry. Try learning Applescript.

The ability to play videos

Get rid of the damn bloat. I want iTunes to play my music; if you’ve got bright ideas about an all in one media player, for God’s sake come at it fresh rather than tacking on features in an already weird-feeling app. Pierre Igot, who becomes more and more outspoken the longer I read his stuff (only occasionally, sorry), has similar things to say. That whole 1000 monkey syndrome again, I’m afraid.


Don’t forget that the project manager of iTunes was the original creator of SoundJam, which had theme support including ugly and uglier (Links courtesy of The True Story of Audion, the other app that could have been iTunes in another universe. Great story, that.)

I guess the hideous number of gradients all over the place in iTunes isn’t quite as bad as it could be. But really—get someone to redesign that main screen so that it looks awesome. This is your flagship application, Apple. If I had the time, I’d take a crack at a mock-up myself.

All those buttons at the bottom of the window

  • Eject: Get rid of it; put it next to the CD icon. Make it disabled when there’s no CD in the drive!
  • Visualiser: Don’t care. Get rid of it; it is never used.
  • Equaliser: I don’t use it, but I can see the point. May as well leave it.
  • AirTunes speakers: Gold. Love it. Leave it right there.
  • Shuffle & Repeat: Never use ‘em, but gotta have ‘em I suppose. Move them over next to the equaliser.
  • Add playlist and show album art? Now they’re by themselves, may as well leave them as is.


Let me remove those ugly words from the toolbar (“Search” and “Burn Disc”). I know what they mean by now!

Application support

iTunes doesn’t use the “Application Support” folder in ~/Library . Bug ID# 4306990.


Too many bugs, not enough time. Stay tuned, I suppose.

Update: a more thought out (less off the time of the head, in other words) criticism of iTunes is also available from Membranophonist's Ramblings.


Performa like it’s 2005

Okay, so I was going to write a pre-event article to try and sort things out in my head, but it obviously didn’t come together in time. And, benefit of hindsight and all, now I have more tangible things to say.

It was quite obvious to me that Apple wouldn’t hold a “One more thing” special event if the only thing debuting were updated PowerMacs (overdue, but not sexy) and last-legs updated PowerBooks (overdue, even less enticing). The question was: what?

That is a question easily answered by hordes upon hordes of fans who eagerly awaited the announcement. I’m very pleased to hear about the “Media-Centre” iMac, and I’m nicely surprised by the Video Store & Video iPod. I’m less pleased about the PowerMac/PowerBook situation, but that will surely rectify itself in time.

First, about the Media Centre iMac. I had incredible flashbacks back to, oh, 1997 or so, when I had my Perform 6400. This little beast was underpowered and overpriced, but there were two things it had that made it solid gold. One: IR remote control, that could even turn on the computer. Second: a TV Tuner, and software to record TV onto the hard drive.

Can you believe that it’s 2005 and we’re turning the corner on returning to this design? The computer industry rarely goes around in circles, but in this case I don’t know how else to describe the situation. I find it all quite amusing, at any rate.

Moving on to what is available in the 2005 Perform 6400 (on average, it’s exactly 10 times the clock speed, too. Coincidence? Well, probably.) Integrated iSight is nice, in a value-add kind of way. PCs have been including web-cams in their ridiculous bundle deals for years, now, but they’ve never really been that useful to that many people from what I gather. Even with broadband levels increasing as they are, will that change in the future? My guess is probably not really.

And what’s missing: TV connectivity. It is extremely true that this would make a great dorm room TV (but where’s the TV Tuner?), but a living room (much more common in space-available Adelaide) situation is another story entirely. I haven’t looked at the bandwidth figures, but if Apple could stream video à la Airport Express, I think they would have announced that today as well.

Now that I say that, of course, I realise I’m kind of lying. 320x240 movies from the iTunes Music Store will stream just fine, and higher quality wouldn’t be out of the question, either. I suspect the cost of integrating a Quicktime decoder into an Airport Express is a little expensive right now, given the hardware that would require.

And now that I’ve mentioned that thing where people who aren’t from Australia can buy music, I’d like to segue into the video iPod. Thinner, flat-faced (same as the iPod nano, if you didn’t notice) design with a bigger screen really is quite nice.

But whoever’s in charge of the iTunes division really needs to get a clue. The iTunes’ features are just been tacked on here and there, without any thought for what used to be the best-designed media interface in the world.

I’ll pay the thought that Apple didn’t really consider selling video too seriously when they started the iTunes Music Store, but now that they’re branching out, it would be a really great idea to stop with the damn music label for something that is now quite blatantly not exclusively related to music. Hell, even keeping podcasts in iTunes was a bit of a stretch, and now we’re (if we could) buying video there as well?

I respect that Apple has a huge brand in “iPod”, but I don’t think the same is true of the “iTunes Music Store”. I predict they’ll drop the “Music” part sooner rather than later, and probably about the same time that the video store becomes actually popular.

But what to do about iTunes? I suspect that there is a significant investment in that name, explaining Apple’s desire to piggy-back it with features that don’t make sense. This rapid version shift from 5 to 6 is certainly one of drunkenbatman’s “canaries”, from my point of view, and I simply don’t understand what they think they’re doing.

Two side notes that I’ll never manage to flesh out an entire article with

Apple’s earnings thing was certainly very interesting, and they seemed to display some great results. I don’t understand what the hell they’re doing with $8 BILLION cash when the Finder is still pain-inducing. And that’s pretty lucky they brought out the Mac mini: 202,000 sold out of 600,000ish desktops is well done in my eyes – Bill Palmer may end up not to have been proved correct after all. (I like the guy, don’t get me wrong.)

Finally: iPod has market share of 75% of all MP3 players? That’s some numbers. With the iPod nano, I’m sure they’ll keep it up. Let’s use some of that clout to get the iTMS down here in Australia already.


Will on Gruber

Today was money spending day. Don’t let anyone know. Actually, it wasn’t for much, but it was for two items that normally I wouldn’t consider buying. And they’re both related to feeds. (By feeds, I “mean” RSS, but I try and avoid acronyms and marketing terms as much as possible.)

Since NetNewsWire’s creator has joined ranks with NewsGator for new and wonderful things, Rory Prior over there with NewsMac Pro decided to announce a 40% off special for a little while to mark the occassion. Not sure exactly how those two events are linked, but I figured “Hey, I haven’t bought a feed reader yet (still on NNW Lite), and this is cheap (only $20 Australian), and I like the way Rory is experimental with interface design, so…why not?”. While I’m not enamoured at first touch, my thoughts on this app will follow at a later date. I’m reluctant to comment too much now, since I know new versions are around the corner.

And on to my second purchase. In a related way, I was browsing the internet (wasting time, as they say) and I finally got sick of reloading http://daringfireball.net/linked/ manually (Don’t miss that he mentioned my drunkenbatman-spread piece :) , and note that he did point me out for not really knowing anything. Which I confess to because it’s true—this man tells it like it is.) and coughed up $20 for membership to daringfireball. No, I won’t wear one of his t-shirts, no matter how much I like his writing.

The thing about John Gruber is that he’s one of those “perfect” writers with whom I so very rarely disagree. The money also goes in gratitude to Markdown, which I consider a very fine piece of work and which fundamentally made me reconsider how I wanted to write markup. Why indeed bother writing this is <em>empasised</em> text or this is \emph{empasised} text when it’s so much easier (and more natural) to write this is *empasised* text ?

Sure, there is always txt2tags, which is almost identical (it is slightly more powerful than Markdown, albeit with greater complexity), but I heard of Markdown first. It’s the first initial contact with an idea that creates the association.

Not to mention SmartyPants, without which my posts here would be much more tedious to write. And man, how I would hate to see no em-dashes and curly quotes here.

I do have mixed feelings about paying for membership to a single writer, which is why I didn’t sign up in the beginning. But really, everything this man writes is gold and I do want to be able to pay to continue reading that. Additionally, the linked list covers a broad amount of material while being (almost) infallibly interesting to me, and even small snippets of Gruber are better than nothing. Also, imagine if I end up one day (hey, 24 is still young) as clever as him and people pay me to do what I’m doing now? In the reverse situation, it would be kind of nice.



So this guy, drunkenbatman, is upset with the way Apple’s development process for Mac OS X has kind of exploded in breadth but at a cost of depth; not enough developers and too many apps to work on. Not enough time for each app means more bugs and less polish.

I pinged him my sad story about that tiny Preview bug, since I know he digs that kind of thing, and as a result, that bug has fallen across many more eyes than I would have really expected. Some people say its not even a bug; that inodes shouldn’t be used because they’re not portable across file systems; etc. But those comments are missing the big picture: that there are people writing applications at Apple who don’t know the way the Mac works.

The most interesting comment, in my eyes, demonstrated some understandings of Apple’s inner workings:

Well, if you have broad knowledge of Apple’s development team, this wouldn’t surprise you. There are critical parts of OS X Server written by interns. Apps like Preview have very small developer teams, so you really fall back on individual competencies. Apple has been adding developers as a pace that must have easily outstripped the supply of experienced and interested OS X developers long ago. So new hires are Windows/unix/open source experienced, Cocoa is a whole new animal to many of them, and Apple tends to hire rather talented and experienced developers, which means they want to do things their way.

This all sorts out, but it takes a version or two from what I can see.

Okay, so what to do about this sort of thing? On the one hand, responses from bugreport.apple.com that demonstrate inadequacy are reasons to hold the system in despair and make us want to reject the whole thing.

On the other hand, well, bugs do get fixed, even if the vast majority are simply marked duplicate and not fixed for another 18 months. And in the cases that the community can educate the developers in Apple (as backwards as that may be), the opportunity should be grasped as firmly as possible. The Radar bug reporting mechanism is the only crack in Apple’s closed-wall approach that the whole community can reach through, and as a whole it’s up to us to help them in the situations where/when it’s needed, rather than shooting down the only people actually capable of helping us.

Only through experience can these newly-minted Apple developers get a feel for how they should be writing their applications, and positive feedback from the community is a fantastic way to do this. I wondered about the applebugfriday meme for a while trying to decide if it would do more harm than good: lots and lots of extra bugs being reported in the system so much so that the infrastructure to deal with them collapses. I’ve come to conclusion, however, that this isn’t the case, and (provided that people actually file unique bugs, or at least re-submit bugs with new spin over ones they’ve read about) that applebugfriday is perhaps the only way to add the level of polish to Mac OS X and its apps that it is currently missing.

So let’s cross our fingers that there are people listening and learning, (and that applebugfriday is a well replicating meme) and file away our little insignificant bugs until the whole operating system sparkles.


Preview.app followup from Apple

Oh dear. I’m not encouraged. My reply (the fact that I received one being something that I’m quite pleased about) from engineering at Apple regarding my most recent bug report (that is, bug #4273090, about how bookmarks to PDF files within Preview.app break if their path changes) states that the behaviour I suggest (i.e., the bookmark doesn’t break) is impossible:

[Name removed out of consideration]: Engineering has determined this issue behaves as intended based on the following information:

If you move the file, how would Preview know where you’d moved it?  This kind of thing only works with applications because of the launch services mechanism and the Finder. Since Preview isn’t running all the time, it can’t receive notifications of when every file on your disk is moved, and you probably wouldn’t want Preview being launched every time you move or rename a file.

I can’t begin to describe how I feel about this. The first sentence destroys every hope that I had that Apple hires exclusively Really Clever People. Which is why I included the name that appeared in the email as well [UPDATE: actually, I’ve now removed it after the suggestion of someone more wise than myself]. It is unconscionable that a developer working for Apple doesn’t know that Mac OS X can refer to files in the file system via a unique ID that is independent of their location—haven’t these people been using aliases for years? Apparently not.

Poke around some of Apple’s documentation to read more: “On HFS and HFS+ file systems, each file and folder has a unique, persistent identity. Aliases use this identity along with pathname information to find files and folders on the same volume.”

And that was with just five minutes Googling. Sheesh. Let’s get our act together, okay?


Innovation pressure

While I’m on a roll with this writing thing, I’d like to address some thoughts bubbling from my head after reading drunkenbatman’s article on research in how we interact with computers, “Humans being”.

This guy, I must add, seems pretty insane in the amount of energy he seems to be able to expend on his passions. Anyway, once it gets started, the article is about how insanely difficult it is to actually come up with innovations in the software arena now that it’s 30 years old (or whatever) and that to build things from scratch requires an enormous amount of time and talent, which is equivalent to a great deal of money.

It really is true that we’re only seeing baby steps, but it’s not like things are literally stagnant. Both Apple and Microsoft aren’t moving forward in leaps and bounds, but the frameworks they are building make it increasingly easier for developers to create amazing things. At least, that’s the idea. And in general, although things always seem to take longer than you’d like, I think that the effort expended by Apple and Microsoft (the latter which will be yielding benefits after Windows Vista is released; WinXP has been dormant now long enough that innovative app development isn’t being driven by features of the OS itself) is well spent.

Maybe Apple can’t afford to spend the time to create a media-managing application that seems to push at the boundaries of what computers can do well for us, but if they put big pieces of the puzzle in place for someone like Wil Shipley to do so, then we are still seeing innovation.

But db is right when he says that if you want something like handwriting recognition, you can’t just sit down and write the app. You need development labs to build the tech, and from tech you build the app. This is exactly analogous with the OS framework providing the tech for the app for third-party developers, but in the case of Apple, there might be no-one just sitting in a lab playing with a Tablet PC and trying to get it to work as damn well as Microsoft has already got it.

These thoughts are occurring to me as I write, but oh dear, if Apple hasn’t invested the time and money for handwriting recognition since the Newton was cancelled (and there’s obviously no way that someone from outside the company can assess that statement), then of course they can’t develop a tablet form-factor Powerbook since they’ll be stuck with 1990s-era technology for input.

Something tells me that the work MS has been doing recently (and I’ve heard very good things, although never used one extensively) trumps what Apple did with the Newton back in the day. Let’s hope that Apple indeed do have cards up their sleeve, and their 6–8 billion US in the bank couldn’t be better spent hiring some more geniuses. I would love to see the next big thing come out of Apple’s labs rather than Microsoft’s, but their 5% market share may indeed by the problem that Steve Jobs says it is (“Look, with the iPod, we’re heaps good coz there’s no monopoly keepin’ us down!”).

But yikes, when you take a step back and realise we’re not talking about just one aspect of the computer, or one aspect of the programming language as in Avoid Copland 1010, by John Siracusa, there is so much to lose if the pressure or capability for innovation fails that I hope that Apple knows what they’re doing.

And you know what? They probably do. Sometimes we just gotta take a step back and say, ‘oh well, not having a consistent interface is annoying, but at least we’re seeing progress!’ Let’s hope that it’s the right progress.

Too much information

I read something the other day, but I can’t remember where it was. And it’s ringing true especially now. Talking about how multitasking really is less efficient when it has to switch processes very frequently, and this is the same as the brain; now compare to how Knuth imposes a batch mode into his life so that he excludes everything that isn’t important to his current work.

I read a bunch of people who write periodically on the web (I am fairly opposed to using both the noun and the verb ‘blog’, but at a pinch I’d prefer the former), and I’d often like to amalgamate my thoughts on the matter and put together something publicly. But two things get in the way: I get distracted and I don’t have enough time. Well, the latter complaint is unavoidable within the context of the problem. Either I’m organised enough to do something or I’m not. (All too frequently, I’m not.) But the former can be a big problem, and in the context (sorry to repeat this word) of getting real work done, it can be quite detrimental to my life if I let it continue.

While I’m sitting at my desk, I might switch between thinking/reading about magnets, TeX, Apple, ongoing projects for other people, random news, random email, tutoring students, and a fair number of smaller things as well. With so many context switches with varying degrees of priority, I can’t possibly hope to keep up with almost all of them unless the situation can be resolved before my brain switches tack again. More problems arise when less important but more enjoyable trains of thought occur, and what’s really important (i.e., my PhD) suffers.

The solution to this problem would be to get some self-disciple, damn it, and ignore all the other distractions, but I seem to not be able to even come close to doing this. I don’t know if it’s because without my distractions, I’m no longer the same person, as if the information I consume is what gives me my own personality. This is indeed a tempting proposition, but I’m sure ingesting less information and concentrating harder on a specific task won’t diminish my sense of self, although it might make me less interesting to talk to, since all I’d know about is a table that floats on magnets.

Days like today, when I have few emails and there’s little news, are supposedly the best, since I can concentrate less on them. Let’s hope that these days occur more often in the future.


Some words on Preview.app

What I have to say about Preview is quite good. In Mac OS X 10.3, Preview was re-written, perhaps by Dominic Giampaulo, and it was hot. It opened PDFs in no time flat, and its searching capabilities were just so nice. In addition, it handled hyperlinks and tables of contents and other regular “PDF-like” stuff that had made it quite inferior to Acrobat Reader in the past.

The only problem was, it wasn’t part of the public Cocoa framework for displaying PDF files—only Preview itself could handle them as nicely. Anyone else (TeXShop, say) had to rely on bare bones it-works-but-there’s-no-bells-OR-whistles functionality.

With Tiger, Apple released PDF-goodness on all in PDFKit. Now TeXShop handles PDFs as well as anyone, even if Spotlight (or something) seems to have slowed down Tiger’s Preview compared to Panther’s. Oh well, I’ve only a 867MHz Powerbook, so I can’t complain. And everyone was happy, especially since Preview was further updated to handle annotation and global bookmarks.

Except they did a shoddy job at adding new features. Annotations can only be circles or (exactly one font at exactly one size of) text, and after the document is saved they become baked in. That’s right: no editing or seeing what’s underneath after actually creating the annotation. So that feature is only really marginally useful.

And second, the global bookmarks menu is a really nice idea. What’s it for? I didn’t realise this for ages, but it’s to keep track of where you’re up to (or your favourite places in) in any number of PDF documents that you have been reading. So, that’s pretty cool once I started using it. Here’s the kicker, though. It only works with static file paths. Eh? If you move or rename the PDF, your bookmark dies. It greys out in the menu, but all you can do about it is go to the preferences and delete the bookmark.

WTF? I haven’t got around to programming in Cocoa yet, but I’m almost 100% sure that it’s not the hardest thing in the world to link a file such that its location in the file system is independent of whether or not you can access it. Case in point: aliases in the Finder. And if the Finder can do something, anyone can do better.

So that’s my much delayed Friday bug for Apple: bug #4273090

Summary: Preview can place global “bookmarks” in PDF files to make it easier to keep track of reading long documents. However, it links those bookmarks with static file paths; if the file moves then the bookmark is broken. A more robust method of linking to the PDF file should be used.

Steps to Reproduce:

  • Open a PDF, and add a bookmark to it from the Bookmarks menu.
  • Close the PDF, and notice that the Bookmarks menu allows you to open the file at the previous location.
  • Now move the original file.
  • The bookmark is greyed out, and the bookmark is broken. It can’t even be fixed: it can either remain there unusable, or it may be deleted.

Expected Results:
The file should be linked to its file system node, not its file path. The bookmark should not break when the PDF is moved.

Actual Results:
The file is linked via its path; renaming or moving the PDF breaks the bookmark.


Other people's Finder

Of course, I only write about the Finder because other people are. drunkenbatman probably sparked more interest than most — not uncharacteristically — in his complaint Spotlight on Spotlight, Part 01 of \infty.

Brett Simmons responded to some people’s comments that the Finder should be re-written in Cocoa: “Cocoa can't, on its own, fix problems with a flawed design” in Finder + Cocoa = Finder.

I would say that most people who say this implicitly assume that a re-implementation in Cocoa would involve a re-design by necessity, but it’s never good to presume on the intentions of relatively anonymous comments on the internet.

Finally, John Siracusa’s recent entrance with “FatBits” (I dig the name; man have I been nostalgic recently) allowed him to make a statement that corresponds very well with what I said last week in his article The state of Mac web browsing:

Thanks to a fundamentally broken state retention design, nesting is effectively dead in the Mac OS X Finder‚ and I mean in the avian sense, not the hierarchical one.

This echoes quite closely my sentiment that it used to be fun to hang out in the Finder (I’m being metaphorical), whereas now it’s not really something I even consider. At least with the advent of Exposé I’m back to using the Desktop. Pre-10.3, I literally kept an empty Desktop. I’m glad at least you’re back, old friend.

I can’t continue with writing any more today, and I’m way behind my work to continue this tomorrow (let’s just say that kernel panics aren’t particularly amusing when writing an article in an unsaved TextEdit document), so I’ll leave it at that for today.


The Finder makes me avoid it

Okay, so everyone knows that the Finder is one of Mac OS X’s biggest embarrassments. And the real reason that I started writing in this place was to participate in Apple Bug Friday and hopefully help to build up whatever momentum will actually help fix the problems.

Bear in mind that I do accept that the next version of Mac OS X isn’t due for eighteen months or thereabouts, so any improvements that we’re going to see won’t appear for quite some time. Also remember, though, that actually coming up with a Finder That Doesn’t Suck (and associative services such as Spotlight) will take quite a bit of time indeed so the window for actually getting such a project started might be very small indeed.

The problem with writing up bugs with the Finder is that usually the bug that occurs is rather transitory. Say that I’ve got a few icons on my Desktop and suddenly all new icons are placed on top of “Macintosh HD”, a ridiculous state of affairs. This is the Finder’s fall-back method when it thinks there are no spots left, but in my case there clearly was a lot of space that could have been used. After a bit of fiddling to get enough info to actually file the report, however, the problem seems to have disappeared. Well, that’s one less bug we need to deal with again, if it never happens again. But will it? Oh, I guess so.

So now I’m racking my brain trying to think of what else the Finder does that really gets under my skin, and wouldn’t you know it—I can’t think of anything. So I go looking around a bit, starting to think “hey, maybe the Finder isn’t so bad after all” (although not believing myself), when, browsing through the preferences, it hits me: that God-damned dialog that asks me if I’d like to really change the extension on the file I just changed the extension of.

Sure, I get why it’s there. But give me the damn option to turn it off. I’m sure many people have submitted this bug before. But I figure, the more submissions of the same bug, the more the one guy working in Finder QA (and (s)he must be part-time) will get irritated that people keep sending in the same bug, trivial though it is, and get someone to fix it.

On the other hand, this is the type of thing that will probably change in 10.5 whether people file the bug report or not, so the actual use of doing so asymptotes to zero. But here we go anyway with bug #4250447:

Summary: When the extension of a file is changed, the Finder confirms whether or not you wish to change the extension.

Steps to Reproduce: Change the extension of a file in the Finder.

Expected Results: The first time such a thing happens, a confirmation dialog should appear, with the option to turn it off. (A checkbox to not sure this dialog again.) The default button of the dialog should be to accept the change, since the text of the dialog should deter any user that doesn’t know what they’re doing to cancel the change.

Actual Results: Every single time I need to change a file’s extension, I have to confirm it. The default button in the dialog is the not make the change, so it needs to be clicked with the mouse. This gets very tedious very quickly.

But the whole state of affairs is quite depressing. It’s quite easy to see that there are certain pieces of software in Mac OS X that share a certain lack of polish. The Finder is the worst culprit, and suffers from two problems: bad design and poor implementation.

But Tiger’s Mail.app gives me the same vibe, and I’d bet that the two programs at least share the same manager. The UI to Spotlight is lumped in with the Finder in my eyes, but it’s obvious that it exists in the same family tree. In the case of each, when using them for extended periods of time I’ve just run into so many little problems that if there were really decent alternatives I’d like to live without them.

I do believe that the terrible state of the Finder has directly resulted in my avoiding of it as much as possible, because it’s simply unpleasant to hang out there (if you’ll pardon the expression). I remember traversing my folder structure in the classic Mac OS, giving things icons and tweaking their icon positions, but in Mac OS X it’s strictly “get in get out” and minimise the exposure. There’s no reason to linger, and lingering is one of the reasons that people enjoy using their computer. Or maybe it’s a side-effect. Whatever. I do not enjoy using the Finder. I want to, but it just won’t let me.

The tragedy of the whole thing is that I don’t think it would take that much to fix everything up. Refine the UI, and reduce the wasted space that it has everywhere. Fix the terrible UI elements, such as the bizarre way that labels work. Just get someone to sit down, and write a design spec for everything that’ll be in 10.5 (and it had better have damn fancy metadata like Windows Vista already has) and you’re set.

The Finder should be Mac OS X’s standout application, the way it used to be. But enough people have wished for it before now, and look where we’ve ended up.


I found a new bug that I hadn’t seen before that annoys me no end now that I know about it. Check out the most vexing bug #4250475:

Summary: Finder windows may exist in one of two states: with or without a toolbar. In these states they are themed with either brushed metal or aqua, respectively. After a smart folder is saved in brushed metal, closing and reopening it displays the smart folder with the search query hidden and a button “Edit” to reveal it (a “query-less” state). However, when changing the window to aqua, this query-less state reverts to displaying the entire search query again. Closing and reopening the folder (still in aqua state) STILL does not show the query-less state.

Steps to Reproduce:

  • Create a smart folder. The more search terms, the better. Notice how they use up a fair amount of space in the window.
  • Save it on the desktop, say.
  • Make sure the window is brushed metal.
  • Close the window.
  • Open the smart folder in its own window (double-click its icon).
  • Notice that the search query is suppressed and the window looks relatively elegant.
  • Now press the toolbar button to change the window into aqua.
  • Note that the search is now revealed, possibly taking up several lines of space.
  • Close and reopen the window.
  • Note that the search query is still shown. If the lag on opening the window is great enough (use a complex search that finds lots of items on a slow computer), the query-less state is displayed as the window opens, but is replaced when the window finishes loading with the search query instead.

Expected Results: The aqua view should display the query-less state in the same manner as the brushed metal windows.

Actual Results: The query-less view is never shown, except momentarily, in the aqua view.



This is just a quick 20 minute article regarding Apple’s recent developments in the music business. Specifically, that ROKR phone, iPod nano, and iTunes 5. It’s easy to write about that first one: “meh?”. It looks like a fat ugly phone, but bear in mind I haven’t seen it in real life. With 512MB storage max, it’s simply something that I wouldn’t really consider based on the iTunes-factor alone. It’s not a reason not to get it, of course, but an iPod shuffle that creates a bulge in my pocket isn’t something I find particularly compelling, especially compared with something like the Nokia N91, for instance.

Moving on, the iPod nano has really nice product pictures. It looks pretty fancy, and Michael Gartenberg likes it, so I guess there’s not more to say. I’m not sure I’m convinced of the storage capacities 0.5 & 1, 2 & 4, 20 & 60 product matrix, but I think at this stage it’s as important to keep the iPod line “fresh” and keep people talking about it rather than miss out on a nicely balanced set of numbers.

Finally, and this was my impetus for writing this article, iTunes 5 is ugly ugly ugly. Listen, iTunes 4.9 was ugly as well. And some of the changes in the new version are for the better. But the horribly square window and the even worse faux LCD display just do not sight at all comfortably with me.

The worst thing? They did nothing to reduce the clutter or improve the features (search, whoop-dee-doo – I keep my iTunes library organised, thank you very much), and the interface now contains so many gradients that I’m getting flashbacks of ClarisWorks circa 1990. (That is, going overboard with using them, not ClarisWork’s interface. Desktop DTP almost never recovered.)

If I had the time, I’d like to mess around with some mock-ups of an iTunes-like interface just to see how hard it actually is to create something attractive.

Oh, one last point. It’s kind of cool to have folders of playlists that displays in the top level the culmination of songs that are contained within it.


Not another distraction.

Thoughts kept coming into my head that I wished to express, but I had no medium through which to do so. I'd be better off keeping quiet, since that would take less time, but I'm sure my attentive readers will attest to the fact that when things are itching to come out, there's really nothing that can be done besides let them.

Actually, that's a bit of a lie. If I had more self-discipline, I wouldn't have any distractions at all besides eating, drinking and sleeping (and now, exercising), but I feel that my distractions help make me who I am; and in fact, can often be a help to others. So here we are.

I can try and convince myself that writing here is beneficial to me, since everyone knows (or should know) that good writing takes practise. Any task that requires good writing will be accomplished quicker if I'm practised at that task, so by writing here, I'm practising, and hence saving myself time in the future. And hopefully improving the quality of that task at the same time.

But really, do I believe it? I think I just like the idea of writing. So, I'll need to schedule it. I'm coming to believe more and more that my life without a schedule will eventually turn to a chaotic mess; I'm trying with some success to become more organised and to do things in their proper order at appropriate times, but there's still a lot to be done. Back to the point of this paragraph: let's say that Wednesday evening is a good time to do some writing, so I'll attempt to spend say half an hour at least every Wednesday after work putting something in here.

It's my goal to write these things out in one or two passes max, then proof-read a single time. The point is to try and write decently without having to explicitly think about writing properly. If I'm good, it should just happen and it won't be embarrassing reading what I write. If I'm bad, I'll make mistakes in my spelling, grammar, logic, and consistency. And you, my attentive reader, won't wish to return. Here's hoping that doesn't happen.

Time to eat. Thanks for coming.