The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…



The useful yet useless Services menu

One of the most-useful tools in macOS is also one of the most useless: The Services menu. In theory (and occasionally actually true), the Services menu lets you quickly take action on something—a selected file or folder, or a chunk of text. In reality, the Services menu is a vaste wasteland of unused functionality, and a place where pre-assigned keyboard shortcuts go to hide from your attempts to use them elsewhere.

If you install a fair number of apps on your Mac, you may be surprised by the amount of stuff in your Services menu. Here’s a look at my iMac, after I reset the Services panel (System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → Services) to its defaults:

If you’re good at counting, you spotted 123 separate services flowing past. Not all are active, of course—”only” 58 are. Of those 58, you’ll see some subset based on whatever you’ve selected…but even that subset can present itself as a huge list:

That’s really not very helpful when you want to quickly apply some action to your selection. To make the Services menu useful again—and to potentially free up some keyboard shortcuts—you’ll need to actively manage your Services.


On the uselessness of search in macOS Mail

For the last couple macOS releases, I’ve had nothing but trouble searching in Mail. Note that I didn’t write “trouble searching mail,” but rather, “trouble searching in Mail.” For example, today I needed to find an email from my business partner Peter about a hidden pref in Butler. (I was hoping this pref could help a user who was having problems with the pasteboard in a certain app.)

Based on a document on my hard drive, I knew the name of the default was Pasteboard Normalization Interval, but I couldn’t remember the syntax of the defaults write command to set its value. So I searched in Mail…

So clearly, no emails in my database contain the words I’m looking for, right? Here’s the exact same search, run in Spotlight:

Not one but two email messages match my search, and provided the needed syntax for the command.

Wait, I know what you’re thinking: “Ahh, look, it’s in quotes!” Doesn’t matter; searching Mail for "Pasteboard Normalization Interval" still results in zero matches. Searching on even one word of the phrase, like Normalization, also finds no matches.

Again, I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, I bet the Mail index is screwed up.” Nope; even after rebuilding the index on all 250,000+ messages in my database, no matches are found. (And yes, I let the index complete its rebuild, which took hours.)

I’ve heard from others that search in Mail works for them. But it’s a no go for me, and I know, for others. So something’s wrong, but I don’t know exactly what it is, nor how to fix it.

So for now, I have to rely on Spotlight to search Mail…or a third-party app, but more on that in a bit.

macOS app: Test DNS servers with namebench

If you’ve got a speedy internet connection at home, but it seems slow, it’s possible its’ not the connection itself but the speed of your chosen DNS server.

To figure out if the DNS servers are part of the problem, check out namebench, a DNS server benchmarking app. namebench compares your existing DNS servers to a large list of other DNS servers, and shows you how they all perform.

When namebench launches, you’ll see a window populated with your current DNS server addresses, and a few other settings you can modify:

Click Start, then go ahead and find something else to do for a while—the benchmarking process may take 15 minutes or more, depending on how many name servers it can see.


macOS app: BackupLoupe examines Time Machine backups

I’m somewhat paranoid about backups—I have many of them, both online and offline, onsite and offsite. I test my backups to make sure they’re good. In short, I do my best to make sure a hardware failure or natural disaster won’t take out my data.

My backup strategy includes Time Machine, mainly for recovering from “oh crud I didn’t mean to delete that!” moments. We also use it, via a Time Capsule (RIP, sigh), to back up our laptops.

While I love how Time Machine works, I dislike that it doesn’t tell you anything about a given backup other than how big it was. Enter BackupLoupe, a $10 “honorware” app. BackupLoupe examines your Time Machine backups and computes a “diff” for each one, letting you know exactly what was backed up in a given run:

Each backup is color coded—on the left of each backup’s name, the color indicates the size of the backup, and on the right, the deviation of that size from the norm.


Transforming text via Keyboard Maestro

Recently, Melissa Holt wrote about transforming text via the Transformations menu. After seeing this article, a reader named Hunter wrote to me with this comment:

Today in The Mac Observer Melissa Holt wrote about using the TextEdit/ Edit/ Transformations command to change the case of a sentence or paragraph. However, there is no option to perform, “Sentence Case”, i.e., capitalize the first letter of the first word, and keep all other words in lower case.

Is there a way in Terminal, or maybe Keyboard Maestro to add this option to Transformations? It seems to me that the given choices have rather limited uses.

In addition to not offering sentence case, the Transformations menu has a few other drawbacks:

  • Not all apps have a Transformations menu.
  • Only three very basic transformations (upper, lower, capitalize) are supported.
  • The transformations are buried in a sub-menu, requiring lots of mouse navigation to reach.

While I don’t believe it’s possible to modify the Transformations menu, it’s pretty easy to use Keyboard Maestro to build a “Sentence Case” transformation…or more usefully, as seen at right, a palette with many more transformations. Unlike the Transformations menu, the Keyboard Maestro solution will work in any app where you can copy and paste text.


How to make Sims 3 work in macOS Sierra

When we upgraded all our Macs to macOS Sierra, my daughter was upset because Sims 3 broke. After much scouring of the internet, I found the solution and tweeted about it:

It dawned on me, though, that if that forum post ever vanishes, I’ll be in trouble with future new Macs and/or reinstalls, so I thought I’d document it here, too. Read no further unless you (or a family member) play Sims 3 and want to get it working in macOS Sierra. And really, try the linked forum post first; this is just a backup plan.


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.

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.


View Unix man (help) pages in Preview

Today’s tip goes well with yesterday’s tip, which explained how to open any Finder item’s folder in Terminal via Keyboard Maestro. Once in Terminal (and sometimes even when not in Terminal), I’ll often want to check out the man page (help) for a given command.

You can do this directly in Terminal with man [name of command], of course, but then it opens on top of whatever you were working on, and you have to read it in Terminal. You could use another tab or window, but you’d still be reading in Terminal. There are times, too, when I’m writing about the Unix side of macOS, so I’m not even in Terminal, but still want to view a man page.

My solution to this problem is two different ways of doing the same thing: I open man pages as nicely-formatted PDFs in Preview. The method I use to get to that point depends on if I’m working in Terminal or not.

Update: I’ve modified the script and macro so that they properly handles two-argument man commands, such as man 3 printf.

In Terminal

Based on an old Mac OS X Hints tip, I created a very simple shell script:

The key to this little script is the -t option on the man command. From the (hehe) man man help file, here’s what that does:

  -t     Use /usr/bin/groff -Tps -mandoc -c to format the manual page,
         passing the  output to stdout. The default  output format  of
         /usr/bin/groff -Tps -mandoc -c is  Postscript, refer  to  the
         manual  page  of /usr/bin/groff -Tps -mandoc -c for  ways  to 
         pick an alternate format.

In other words, the -t converts the help page into a PostScript file, which is something that Preview can easily open (which is just what the last line of the script does).

I named this script preman, because it uses Preview to open man pages. Once saved, I made it executable (chmod 755 preman), and I can then open any man page in Preview by typing, for instance, preman bash.

The output is nicely formatted, and by opening the man page in Preview, my Terminal session is uninterrupted. A quick adjustment with Moom, where I have a saved layout to position Preview and Terminal, and I can scan the man page while working in Terminal.

But what about when I’m not in Terminal? For that, I basically implement the same shell script, but with it set up to run within a Keyboard Maestro macro.


Speed up your Mac via hidden prefs

Over my many years of running Mac OS X Hints, a huge number of defaults write hints were published.

For those who aren’t aware, defaults write is a Terminal command that can be used to modify applications’ settings. While you can use these commands to modify settings that are present in an app’s Preferences panel, the more-common use of this command is to set non-visible (hidden) prefs that you won’t find in the GUI.

Here are three of my favorites—three that not only perceptually but actually increase the speed of your interactions with your Mac. I still, to this day, execute these commands on any new Mac I set up.

Don’t worry if you’d prefer to stay away from Terminal: I’ll also show how to use the long-lived1The first reference to TinkerTool that I could find in the Mac OS X Hints archive was in March 2001. TinkerTool to set each of these options using a (relatively easy if crowded) GUI interface.

Tip 1: Change the sheet animation speed

Sheets are the attached windows that roll down from (and up into) the title bar of windows, such as the Save dialog in most macOS applications. The animation of these sheets, while visually appealing, does take some time.

Using this tip, you can basically eliminate the animation, greatly speeding the appearance and disappearance of sheets. Given how pervasive sheets are, this tip can save a lot of time each day. While the other tips offer actual speed improvements, they’re nothing like the change you get by changing the sheet animation speed.

As a test, I opened and closed a Save sheet in TextEdit five times, both before and after applying this tip:

If you’re scoring at home, that’s a 47% reduction in the time required for just five cycles of a Save sheet.


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