The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…


Quickly expand compressed files in Finder

In this post, I lamented on the incredible slowdown seen when expanding many compressed files in Finder. To save a trip back to that article, here’s the tldr; version:

Expand 24 .gz files Finder:
12.8 seconds
.013 seconds
Terminal is 984.6x faster than Finder

With a bit of work, though, you can harness the power of Unix in Finder, and get both the GUI and the speed when expanding files. There are many ways to do this, including third-party apps such as The Unarchiver. You could also write an Automator Service to do the work for you. But I chose to write a Keyboard Maestro macro, because I could make the macro a menu bar option that only shows when Finder is frontmost:

As seen, I actually have two expanders, one that expands just the Apple sales reports mentioned in my original post, and the other that will handle any mix of compressed files. (Yes, the ‘all files’ macro could also handle the Apple sales reports, but because of how it has to run for multiple file types, it’s marginally slower than the dedicated macro.)

These macros both work in the same way—they call on Unix apps to do the expansion, bypassing Apple’s slow GUI expander (which is called Archive Utility). If you’re curious how they work, and/or would like to download them for your own use, keep reading.


The Finder’s GUI tax can be very expensive

Once a month, I download roughly 25 gzipped (.gz) files from Apple—these are our Mac App Store sales reports, with one file for each App Store region. I could have Safari expand these files (via the “Open ‘safe’ files after downloading’ item in its preferences), but I prefer to leave that option unchecked. (Why? I often download archives that I want to leave archived, and I like to keep originals of many of the things I download).

If you work with lots of compressed files, you’re probably familiar with what happens in Finder (see note) when you go to expand any semi-large number of files: The infamous Dancing Dialog™. It looks something like this…

[Note: Technically, this isn’t Finder, it’s Archive Utility doing the expansion. But this is the service that Apple provides to expand compressed files, and it’s what 99% of macOS users will use. It can be changed via the Get Info dialog, but very few people will take that step. So to most users, it seems it’s Finder handling the expansion. For ease of reference, I’m going to say it’s Finder doing the expansion.]

Not only is this randomly-resizing dialog box visually annoying, it turns what should be a super-fast process into one that takes a ridiculous amount of time. The end result is that users think they have a slow machine—”it took over 12 seconds to expand 25 tiny little archives!”—when what they really have is a horrendously slow GUI interface to a super fast task.

Just how fast is the task, if the GUI doesn’t get in the way? Thanks to the Unix core of macOS, we can answer that question using Terminal, the geeky front-end to the Unix core. The Unix command to expand .gz archives is gzip; so to expand all the .gz files in a folder (and keep the originals), you’d use this command in Terminal:

gzip -d -k *.gz

If you try this, you’ll find out it’s nearly instantaneous—press Return, and the files are expanded. Unix actually gives us a way to see exactly how fast it is, via the time command:

$ time gzip -d -k *.gz

real	0m0.013s
user	0m0.002s
sys	0m0.005s

This was for a set of 24 .gz archive files (on a solid state drive), and the real line in the output shows exactly how long it took to expand them all: 0.013 seconds. By comparison, I made a screen recording (with an onscreen stopwatch for timing) of Finder expanding the same 24 files; it took 12.8 seconds for all the dialog dancing to end. Think about that…

Expand 24 .gz files Finder:
12.8 seconds
.013 seconds
Terminal is 984.6x faster than Finder

To put those results another way, if expansion time is linear, gzip could expand 23,631 files in the time Finder takes to expand 24 files. That’s nuts!

(You can watch this video for a visual comparison of expanding the same set of files in Finder and Terminal.)

So it’s not the computer that’s slow, it’s the GUI interface to the computer that (in this particular use case) is incredibly, horrendously slow. And there’s no need for it—the separate individual progress bars, appearing and vanishing in under a second each, provide no useful feedback to the user. They just slow down the task.

Finder (née Archive Utility) should just execute the task without any visual feedback (though it should pop up a window if there are exceptions). If visual feedback is really required, a window with a single progress bar for the entire task would be OK, but would still slow operations down.

This is a great example of how an everyday task can make you think you have a slow computer, when what you really have is a fast computer with a slow interface element. Given how often we all deal with compressed files, it’d be nice to see Apple clean up this mess. Until they do, however, you can harness the power of Unix—even while in Finder—to speed up the task. Here’s one way to do just that.

Apple should go back to the future with the Mac Pro

Expensive trash can?

Back in 2013, Apple introduced the new Mac Pro, an amazing wonder of design. But it was also a study in compromise for “Pro” users, requiring all peripherals to be externally attached, and not allowing for any after-purchase upgrades (video card, CPU, etc.). It was also shockingly expensive.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Apple to try to build a perfect Mac “Pro” desktop for everyone. As nicely designed as the new Mac Pro was, it missed the perfect mark for many Pro users by quite a bit.

So how does Apple try to design one Mac that can satisfy a diverse group that encompasses design professionals, gamers, scientific researchers, video creators, and who knows what else? Quite simply, they shouldn’t try, as such an exercise is destined to fail. (See “new Mac Pro,” above.)

Instead, Apple should design one Mac that can become anything and everything to each type of “Pro” user. While that may sound daungting, the good news is that Apple’s already done this in its recent past. And done it very well, I might add…


A useless analysis of OS X release dates

Updated and republished for the macOS 10.12.1 release; skip it unless you really really care about all the OS X releases. Originally published on November 14th, 2005.

Below the break is a table showing all major releases of OS X (now macOS) from the public beta through the latest public version, which is macOS 10.12.1, as of October 24th, 2016. Note that this release marks the 97th release of OS X (counting major, minor, and released-then-yanked updates). Wow.

Note: Click the ⓘ symbol to read Apple’s release notes for a given update.


I have completed my first—and last—marathon

Last weekend, I ran (along with about 7,000 other entrants) the Portland Marathon. This was my first ever marathon, and also my last-ever marathon. I finished, in 4:12:53 (1,365th place, of 4,295 finishers), which is about how long I thought it’d take me. What follows is a brief look back at how I got to the point where I willingly chose to run 26.2 miles; you may find the information useful if you’re contemplating running a marathon yourself someday.

About the race

The Portland Marathon is a great race, now in its 45th year. It’s actually two races in one, as there’s a half-marathon with the same start and finish points. As seen on the course map (caution: 2.8MB PDF), the two races share the same course until the 11 mile mark. At that point, the half marathon returns downtown for the finish, while the marathon heads into Northwest Portland, then loops up and over the St. John’s Bridge, which would typically provide some amazing views. Of course, it was pouring rain and cloudy all day, so the views weren’t quite so good for us.

The course then follows along a bluff (again, typically scenic) overlooking Portland before descending down into the east side industrial area (running right along the rail yard), then returning to downtown (over the much less scenic Broadway Bridge) and on to the finish.

Why did I decide to run a marathon?

When this year started, I had no thought of running a marathon. I have thought about it in years past, when I was running regularly—and my dad had run them when I was younger, so they intrigued me. (My dad was quite fast; his best was a 2:40, which is an insane 6:08 a mile for 26.2 miles!) But as of the start of the year, it’d been roughly four years since I was running on a regular basis, so running even one mile seemed ludicrous.

To force myself to get in shape this year, I set a pretty ridiculous goal: I decided I’d walk or run 2,016 miles in 2016. This meant averaging 5.5 miles a day, every day, for the entire year. From someone who had probably ran a total of five miles in 2015. Yea, it’s a pretty insane goal.


The iPhone 7 and third-party battery pack cases

One aspect of Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7/7 Plus that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the impact it will have on third-party battery pack case makers. Traditionally, third-party battery pack cases plug into the Lightning port, and typically provide a micro USB connector in its place. They also then usually have a headphone passthrough, either via a port extender or a special headphone cable extender, to allow you to plug in headphones without removing the battery pack.

I was curious how the case makers were going to address this for the iPhone 7, because blocking the Lightning port means that users will have to use wireless headphones when using a battery pack. I searched Amazon for iPhone 7 battery case, to see what might be in store. However, the results were disappointing—basically, every single product uses micro USB for charge and sync. I could go on, but you get the idea: None of the manufacturers seem to be worried about blocking the Lightning port with their battery cases.

The only exception I found was the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case, which isn’t actually designed for the iPhone 7. But as designed for the iPhone 6, this case uses an ultra-slim bottom with a tiny Lightning pass-through, as seen in the photo below (borrowed from one of the reviews on Amazon).

This style of connector would allow you to connect wired headphones (either Apple’s Lightning pods, or standard headphones via Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm adapater cable). I don’t know if this company will be making an iPhone 7 version or not; the iPhone 6 case should fit the iPhone 7, but the camera opening won’t line up with the camera’s new position on the iPhone 7.

(I checked Mophie, too, but they’re early on in their iPhone 7 case building process; their iPhone 7 link takes you to their Explore our Process page, which describes the method and timeline they follow in making products for new devices.)

So if you’re buying an iPhone 7, and you want a battery case right now, and you want to use wired headphones with that case, as of today I see three solutions:

  1. Buy the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case for $35, knowing you won’t be able to take pictures. Note that this is a 2400mAh battery pack, so it’s not as large as some of the others (but it is very slim).
  2. Buy Apple’s $99 iPhone Battery Case. This is an 2365mAh battery pack (up from 1877mAh for the iPhone 6s), and it nicely integrates—at the iOS level—with your iPhone. But it’s pricey, underpowered, and has The Hump. For the cost of the Apple pack, you could get two SOLEMEMO packs and have $30 left over!
  3. Buy any of the forthcoming iPhone 7 battery cases and use wireless headphones. OK, so that totally skips the ‘use wired headphones’ requirement, but it’s really the only other option at this time.

I’m hoping we’ll see someone come out with something truly innovative here, such as Lex Friedman’s suggestion on Twitter:

Adding an actual headphone jack would probably be a home run product; I have no idea if it’s technically possible to split the Lightning port’s signals in that way (I would bet it’s not). Even lacking that, though, it’d be nice to see more third-party cases that pass through the Lightning connector, so that wired headphones could still be used.

Plex and I do not get along

After hearing my The Committed podcast cohosts rave about Plex (a free media server), I thought I’d give it another shot: I’d tried a few months back, but because of the way I store my personal videos (using our own Usher app), it was going to be a big migration project, and I just never got into it. So today, I resolved to try again.

And today, I’m giving up again. I’ve spent the last few hours fighting Plex, and despite the awesomeness of the streaming (it *is* awesome), it’s just not worth the aggravation in configuration and setup—to me, of course. Plenty of others find it works just fine.

But for me, it doesn’t work at all, basically. Here’s a short list of some of the things that bother me about Plex…


Do-it-yourself RAV4 cargo area covers

Note: This post will only (possibly) be of interest to buyers of the 2016 RAV4; if you’re not one of what I assume is a handful of people (at most), move along—there’s really nothing to see here! Posting mainly so I remember what I did.

We recently bought a 2016 RAV4, and (so far) love it. However, there’s one thing that bothered us: the front of the rear cargo area is visible to anyone who glances in. Toyota sells a cover for the cargo area, but unlike those for past RAV4s, it doesn’t attach to the rear setbacks, leaving the front area uncovered. This means that a good sized chunk of the cargo area is still visible, even with the cargo cover in place.

I didn’t want to wait for Toyota to release something, so I set out to MacGyver a solution. I had a few requirements for my homemade fix:

  • Absolutely no added rattles/noise
  • Very light
  • Very cheap
  • No bright reflections in back window
  • Move when the seats’ recline angle changes
  • Easily installed/removed

I had a lot of different thoughts, but wound up using foam core covered by felt, attached with some flat black nylon string. Note: These covers require the cargo cover, as they use its crossbar for support.

They may not be the loveliest things in the world, but they work perfectly and meet every one of my original objectives.

If you’d like to create your own covers, here’s how I made ours…


The (lack of) economics in most hybrid SUVs

Recently, we were in the market for a new car, well, not car but SUV. My wife really likes small to mid-size all wheel drive SUVs, so we started looking for one to replace the car she’s been driving.

But she also prefers hybrids, both for the environmental and economic benefits (using less gas, spending less money) and for the “not having to wait in Oregon’s ever-present gas lines” (because we’re too stupid to pump our own gas) benefit. Having now done lots of research, I have to say that looking for a SUV that’s also a hybrid greatly reduces the choices available.

The environmental question This analysis completely ignores the environmental side of hybrids: Using less gas means emitting less pollutants, which is good for the environment. However, producing batteries can be a dirty business, and batteries consume rare metals. So are they an environmental net loss or gain?

On the question of plug-in hybrids, which recharge from the power grid, it gets even messier: How is the electricity used to recharge created? In the northwest, much of the power comes from hydro and wind, which are cleaner than the coal used in other areas of the country.

In short, I’ve completely ignored the environmental issue here because it’s very complicated. If someone’s aware of a good “green impact” metric that works across hybrids, please let me know.

After doing a lot of reading and searching, and not really worrying about budget just yet, we only found a handful of options (excluding some super-high-end vehicles):

There’s also the BMW X5 xDrive40e, but (a) it’s not out yet, (b) it’s a plug-in hybrid not a straight hybrid, and (c) it’s going to be really wacko expensive when it comes out. So I’m ignoring that one, too.

What I found as I started to analyze the various hybrid SUVs is that—with one amazing exception—they don’t make any economic sense even for the most long-distance of drivers.


Why I still use the admittedly-awful Messages

A while back, David Chartier tweeted this:

David really doesn’t like Messages (for many valid reasons), and has often tweeted and written about other, better messaging platforms, including his current best-of-breed example, Facebook’s Messenger.

And you know what? In general, I agree with David: Messages sucks. It’s got latency issues, messages sometimes vanish, shared URLs are ugly, search is troublesome, it lacks many features found in other apps, etc. Yet still, it’s my messaging app of choice, and will remain my messaging app of choice, probably forever. Why?

First of all, it’s bundled with every Mac and iOS device sold, which means that most of the people in my social group already have it and use it. I don’t have to send a link to someone and explain how to install the app, set up an account, find my name/phone number, add me to their group of friends, and initiate a conversation.

Does that make Messages good? No, just because an app is bundled doesn’t mean it’s excellent. (See previous generations of Internet Explorer on Windows, for instance.) But it does make it pervasive, and in a messaging app, that’s what I want.

But even beyond that—even if Messages were so abysmal it lost 50% of the messages I sent and often force rebooted my devices and remotely spilled my milk—I would probably continue to use it. Why? Because Apple isn’t in the business of making money off of who I talk to, what I talk to them about, or what devices I use to do that talking. Apple wants to sell devices, not data about how people are using Apple’s devices.


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