The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…

 

Re-center the Spotlight search window

Starting with OS X 10.11 (El Capitan), the Spotlight search box was no longer anchored to the menu bar. Instead, it became a floating box you could move around. While this is incredibly useful, I couldn’t figure out how to get the box back to center, so I did what any normal person would do: I asked the Twitterverse … and as hoped, the Twitterverse came through:

It really is that simple—just click-and-hold on Spotlight’s menu bar icon to recenter the search box. And now, a gratuitous video (because I need all the practice I can get with screen recordings!).

Hooray for simple solutions, boo for Apple hiding them from easy discovery: The built-in help references the ability to move the box, but not how to move it back.

A useless analysis of macOS (OS X) release dates

Updated and republished for the macOS 10.12.3 release; skip it unless you really really care about all the macOS releases. Originally published on November 14th, 2005.

Below the break is a table showing all major releases of macOS (previously Mac OS X) from the public beta through the latest public version, which is macOS 10.12.3, as of January 23, 2017.


Note that this release marks the 100th release of macOS (counting major, minor, and released-then-yanked updates). The century mark has been hit!


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

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Semi-automatic Homebrew and video-transcode updates

As I’ve written about in the past, I use Don Melton’s video transcoding tools to rip Blu-Ray discs. I also use Homebrew to install some of the transcode video dependencies, as well as other Unix tools.

Keeping these tools current isn’t overly difficult; it only requires a few commands in Terminal:

$ brew update
$ brew upgrade
$ sudo gem update video_transcoding

My problem is that I often forget to do this, because—unlike most GUI Mac apps and the Mac App Store—there’s no built-in “hey, there’s an update!” system. Suddenly, two months and many revisions later, I finally remember (usually when I see a tweet about a new version of something.) So I thought I’d try to write my own simple update reminder.

I didn’t really want a scheduled task, like a launchd agent—it’s not like these tools need to stay current on a daily basis. (And one of them needs to run with admin privileges, which complicates things.) I just wanted something that would remind me if it’d been a while since I last checked for updates, and then install the updates if I wanted it to do so.

After mulling it over, I came up with a script that runs each time I open a Terminal window (which I do daily). The referenced script looks at the date on a check file, and asks me if I’d like to check for updates if that date is more than a week older than today’s date. This is perfect for my needs: The reminder is automatic, but I can choose when to install the updates based on what I’m doing at the time. If it’s been under a week since I last checked, nothing at all is different about my Terminal launch.

Read on for the script and implementation details. (Note: This is not written for a Terminal beginner, as it assumes some knowledge about how the shell works in macOS.)

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Use sips to quickly, easily—and freely—convert image files

Quite often, I find myself with a number of images (screenshots, typically) that I’ll want to convert from one format to another. If you search the Mac App Store, there are probably 300 apps that will let you do this; many are probably free. You could also use Automator, which has some good image conversion abilities, but can’t (for example) specify the quality of a JPEG conversion.

But the best way I’ve ever found is to use a tool that’s been included with every copy of macOS since the release of Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) in October of 2003: A command line tool called sips. Yes, it requires using Terminal, but it’s quite easy to use. sips can modify one file, or any number of files, converting from one format to another. You can also use sips to resize images, rotate images, and more.

Basic usage of sips is straightforward. (The following is written for Terminal neophytes, so apologies for any over-explaining). Assume you have an image named Beach party.tiff that you’d like to convert into a smaller JPEG, but with a relatively high quality setting. Here’s how you’d do it using sips:

  1. Open Terminal, in Applications > Utilities.
  2. Type cd, then press the Space Bar, then drag in the folder that contains the image(s) to be converted. (Alternatively, you can use this tip to directly open the selected Finder folder in Terminal.)
  3. Type this, then press Return: sips -s format jpeg -s formatOptions 80 "Beach party.tiff" --out "Beach party.jpg"

When you press Return, sips will convert your image file—and it’s really fast, even on larger files. The formatOptions item lets you set the quality of the JPEG in either percentage (as I used), or you can use words: low, normal, high, or best. Hopefully obviously, you specify the new filename after the --out string.

Note that the filename is enclosed in quotes. Those quotes are required, otherwise any spaces in your filenames will cause the command to break.

The real power of sips isn’t in converting one file, though; it’s in batch converting many files. Here’s how to do that…

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Debugging Bluetooth issues in macOS Sierra

I have quite a number of Bluetooth devices connected to my iMac: Apple’s Magic Mouse 2, Magic Keyboard, and the original Magic Trackpad. (Yes, I use both the mouse and the trackpad.) There’s also a pair of Sentey Bluetooth Headphones and a Satechi numeric keypad. Up until macOS Sierra, I hadn’t had any issues with these devices at all.

Since Sierra, though, my trackpad would occasionally disconnect then reconnect, which was annoying but generally harmless, given its role primarily as a shortcut touchpad. Much worse, though, were the Bluetooth headphones: I would hear horrible stuttering and skipping at random but frequent intervals. The audio dropouts were bad enough to make using the Bluetooth headphones impossible.

What follows isn’t really a tip per se, because there’s nothing here that shows how I fixed the problem for good. I have, however, found a workaround that restores my audio, which is something, at least. But if you’re having Bluetooth-related issues, you may find this writeup useful, as I cover some of the tools I used to try to resolve my Bluetooth issues.

[Note: This article was updated to include information on how to use Apple’s free developer accounts to download one of the tools I used—thanks to Torben for pointing this out in the comments; I had no idea there was still a free level of developer account.]

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Peer into package installers before installation

Recently, I went looking for a new accounting package for Many Tricks. I found a few demos that I wanted to try, including Cognito’s MoneyWorks line.

When I downloaded the demo, though, I was a bit surprised to see it was a package installer (.pkg extension). Typically, a package installer is used for system extensions, or other complex installs that have bits that go into many different places.

Being the curious sort, I wanted to see what the package would install before I installed it. You can do this the hard way, by drilling into the package in Finder (Right-click and Show Package Contents), but there’s an app for that.

In the past, I’ve used CharleSoft’s Pacifist to peer into packages. However, it’s a $20 application, and somewhere along the line, I lost my registration information (or maybe I hadn’t ever registered). In any event, I wondered if there were any less-expensive alternatives that did the same thing, as I only use an app like this maybe a few times a year.

A bit of web searching led me to the free Suspicious Package, so I gave it a try (hard to beat free). What I found is a very nicely done app that has replaced Pacifist for my occasional forays into packages.

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Capture a series of screenshots and create a movie

At my day job with Many Tricks, we recently updated our time tracking app Time Sink to version two, and an updated web page was part of the project. For the header area, I wanted to create a time-lapse movie showing the Time Sink Activity Report window changing over an extended period of time (90 minutes), but compressed into a short amount of real-world time (about 14 seconds).

Before the how-to, here’s how the final project came out:

To create the time-lapse movie, I’d need a series of screenshots recorded at a fixed interval. I wanted to shoot only the content area of the report window, as I didn’t need the “chrome” for the movie (it would just distract from the content). So using the built-in screenshot tool wouldn’t work—I didn’t want to have to crop 500+ images (even by script).

While I’m sure there are many utilities that can do this (and I’ll see them shortly in the comments), a brief web search found nothing that was designed to capture areas of the screen at a set interval. Luckily for me, though, Keyboard Maestro has a screenshot action that can record an area of the screen, along with repeat and wait actions I could use to capture a series of stills.

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Safari and the YouTube 4K video problem

When I posted my 787 takeoffs and landings video, I ran into a weird problem: When embedded here, the video would play in Safari at 4K (2160p), but when viewed on YouTube, the max resolution available was 1440p. After failing with web searches, I asked Twitter about it…

…but didn’t hear anything back. I pretty much gave up on the issue until today, when I stumbled across this article, which describes the exact problem I’m having. The summary of the article describes both the problem and the apparent cause:

What appears to be Google’s shift to the VP9 codec for delivering 4K video on the YouTube homepage is preventing Safari users from watching videos uploaded to the service since early December in full 4K resolution, but not from viewing webpage-embedded videos in the same resolution.

Bingo! Google seems to now be using the open and royalty-free VP9 codec for 4K videos viewed on its YouTube site, but reverts to the H264 codec when those same videos are embedded on other sites.

Note that this issue only affects videos uploaded after December 6, 2016:

Videos uploaded to the service prior to Dec. 6 in 4K resolution can still play back in full 4K resolution on Safari from the YouTube homepage.

I was curious about which macOS browsers this issue affects, so I thought I’d do a little experiment…

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Easily insert special Mac characters using Keyboard Maestro

Between blog posts and documentation for Many Tricks, I find myself typing the Mac’s “special character” symbols quite often: ⌘ (Command), ⌃ (Control), ⌥ (Option), ⇧ (Shift), and  (I think that’s an Apple).

You can type some of these via keyboard shortcuts (the  is ⇧⌥K), or by using the Emoji & Symbols viewer. But I find both those methods clunky and slow; instead, I used Keyboard Maestro to create a couple of pop-up palettes that show all the characters:

I use two palettes because while I typically can paste the character itself, that doesn’t work in some spots—like here in the WordPress’ blog post editor, for instance. In those places, I need to use the HTML code for each character—so that cute little  appears when I insert . Ugh. Hence the character palette on the left and the HTML palette on the right.

When I want to insert a special character, I first type the activation keys for either the character (ccc) or HTML (hhh) palettes. When the palette appears, pressing one through five will insert the corresponding character or HTML code for that character. No keyboard shortcuts to memorize, no need to negotiate the Emoji & Symbols viewer. Just a few keystrokes, aided by a visual representation of each character, and I’m done.

As always, you can download these macros if you’d like to use/modify them for yourself.

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See the actual strength of the iPhone’s cellular connection

This is a very old tip, but I’d never seen it before, so I figure it might be new to some others, too. My home has a relatively weak cell signal, varying between one and three dots on the iPhone’s display. But sometimes, even when I have three dots, the quality of my calls seems spotty.

While looking for some tool to try to analyze the cell signal’s actual strength in my home, I stumbled on this useful tip at Lifehacker: It’s possible to make your phone display its actual signal strength in decibel-milliwatts, or dBm. Here’s my phone, showing the stock display on the left, and the dBm value on the right:

And this explains a lot: While two dots of five seems like a decent connection, the actual value of -116dBm is bad. (Signal strength goes from a best of 0 to a worst of -140 or so.) How bad? According to this site, it’s an unusable signal. So, yea, don’t try to call my cell phone when I’m at home!

If you’d like to set your phone to display the actual signal strength (you can tap the indicator to flip between values and dots), read the above-linked article (or any of the thousands of other sites that have the same tip), or just read the rest of this post, where I’ve recreated the simple steps.

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