The Robservatory

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Macs

Hardware: Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner

In mid-2015, I decided I wanted to get rid of the mass of paper we’d been accumulating for years. Much of it could be recycled, but there was still a substantial stack of important yet rarely looked at paper that we needed to keep. If anything was ripe for a digitization project, it was this stack of paper. But there were thousands of pages to scan, and that’s not something you’re going to want to do on your $99 all-in-one printer/scanner/coffee maker.

After talking with some people and reading some reviews, I bought a Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 document scanner. This was not an inexpensive purchase—it lists for nearly $500, though typically sells for just over $400.

Note that there are two versions of this scanner: The PA03656-B005, which is what I have, and the newer PA03656-B305. The newer one is actually less expensive ($415 vs $490 as I write this), and apparently the sole difference is the bundled third-party software. I haven’t seen the newer scanner’s bundle, though, so I can’t comment.

I’ve been using this scanner pretty much every day since October of 2015, and I can say it’s one of the best pieces of hardware I’ve ever purchased. (The software is also very good, but the UI is far from lovely.) So far, I’ve scanned over 8,500 pages with this scanner, and I haven’t had any issues with it at all. If you’re interested in document scanning, read on for my thoughts on why this Fujitsu is an excellent tool for the task…

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Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

At the 2017 Mac Pro launch event

Having sat through the introductory movie (great as always), the crowd hushes as Tim Cook strides to the stage…

As you know, I told everyone we had some great desktop Macs on the roadmap, and I’m here today to reveal our work to you: The 2017 Mac Pro.

First, let me say we know that this took too long for many of you. It’s been three years since we last updated the Mac Pro, but we’ve been working super hard on it. Years and years of work went into what I’m about to show you. This thing is packed with amazing technology, and we think you’re going to love it! So here it is…

Apple Mail: Classic or modern layout?

To me, the modern view in Apple’s Mail app is basically useless: I keep my Mail window at 1,020 pixels in width, because really, there’s no need for it to take up more space than that. But at that width, the modern view’s message preview is so tiny as to be basically worthless:

Obviously, that’s classic view on the left and modern view on the right. With the classic view, I can read each email as soon as I select it in the list; with modern, I have to double-click a message to open in a new window, which is a waste of time and screen space. Modern only gets truly usable if I’m willing to make the window roughly 1,500 pixels in width.

So which layout do you use? Vote in the Twitter poll for the next day (well, 23 hours and counting).

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
Terminal:
.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…

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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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Retina lollipops

A candy store at the local mall had the most amazing wall of colorful lollipops, and I thought it’d make a wild desktop image for a retina iMac. As I snapped the pic on my iPhone, it took a bit of upscaling to reach 5120×2880, but I think it still looks fine; here’s a small-scale version:

I also thought a tunnelized version would be interesting; here’s how that came out:

I have these in my normal “rotate random every 15 minutes” cycle, and still get a kick out of the lollipops when they get chosen.

Count pages in all PDFs within a folder structure

Please see this newer post, with a new script that provides subtotals by subfolder, which is what I really wanted when I wrote this one.

Recently I’ve been trying to go paperless (well, mostly paperless) via a Fujitsu ScanSanp ix500. (I’ll have more to say about the scanner in a future post).

One way to go paperless is to just go from now forward—start scanning stuff and don’t worry about history. I decided that I’d go the other route, and work through our old paper files: some would be scanned and kept, much would just be recycled. The process went really quickly, compared to what I had expected. It helps that the Fujitsu is a wicked-fast document scanner!

But I was curious about how much I was scanning, in terms of total PDF pages—not files, but counting the pages in the files. Spotlight to the rescue; the field kMDItemNumberOfPages returns the number of pages in a document, and it seemed accurate in testing via mdls:

$ mdls /path/to/somefile.pdf | grep kMDItemNumberOfPages
kMDItemNumberOfPages = 4

So I set out to write a script to traverse my “Scans” folder, and return the total number of PDF pages.

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Cutting the (headphone) cord

Until very recently, I wasn’t a user of Bluetooth stereo heaphones. I don’t necessarily have a good answer as to “why not?,” other than I recall trying a pair early on, and not being impressed by sound quality and battery life. That was, of course, years ago, but I hold grudges for a long time, it seems.

Recently I thought I’d try cutting the cord again; there are any number of Bluetooth headphones available—including some very expensive models. Needless to say, these are not in my budget as a casual music listener. I was more interested in something in the $100 or less price range, and in an over-the-ear (versus on-the-ear or in-the-ear) model.

While browsing Amazon one day, I stumbled onto these headphones, with possibly the longest product name I’ve ever seen in Amazon: Sentey Bluetooth Headphones v4.0 with Microphone B-trek H10 Wireless Headphones Headset Foldable with Mic for Running Sport or Travel, 40mm Audiophile Drivers – Also Comes with 3.5mm Cable -Up to 15 Hours Battery – Comes with Free Transport / Protection Carrying Case Ls-4570.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? I’ll just call them Sentey Bluetooth Headphones. Although they list for $100, every time I’ve looked, they’ve been listed for sale at $50. And with over 100 very positive reviews—and Amazon’s easy return policy—this felt like a safe bet. So I ordered a pair, and have had them for a few days now.

So were they worth $50? Absolutely; keep reading for my review.

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