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Discussions on system-software-related topics…

All washed out

Macworld logoAfter struggling for many months to solve an odd color fading issue with videos I encoded using H.264, I decided to get serious about solving the problem.

After much Googling, I found an answer and wrote it up for, in case others are being afflicted by the same problem.

When good cache goes bad…

OS X uses a multitude of cache files--as an example, my user's Library/Caches folder contains 164 top-level items, most of which are folders containing more folders. In total, there's presently 1.18GB of cached data, just for my user. Wow.

Most of the time, this is a Good Thing, as it makes the system more responsive, as it's quicker to retrieve something from cache than to calculate or redownload it. However, it can also be troublesome at times. Like this morning, in my case.

I fired up Mail, and despite the fact that it was running perfectly last night, it was glacial. Folders took multiple minutes to open. Moving a message was a 15 minute process, if it worked at all. Even worse, though, was that when Mail was having its fits, the Finder was completely unresponsive. I could click on some folders, but others would bring the Finder to the land of permanent spinning rainbows. Trying to mount a disk image resulted in more spinning rainbows.

So I restarted, and tried again--it had been quite a while since the last restart. But I had the exact same symptoms. Unresponsive Mail and flakey Finder. I spent a few minutes trying to figure out if I'd changed anything or not, even though I was positive I hadn't touched the system while sleeping :).

Then, after another restart and repeat of issues, I thought I'd try deleting Mail's cache folders. Inside my user's Library/Caches folder, I opened the Mail folder and deleted everything, then emptied the trash. Launched Mail again, and...voila, it was perfect! Speedy as its ever been, and the Finder didn't have fits while Mail was running. Everything was basically back to normal--all because I deleted a series of temporary files that are supposed to do nothing more than make data access quicker. Go figure!

This is the first real cache trouble I've had on OS X, but it is a relatively common source of issues for others. Since cache folders exist in many spots (your user, the top-level Library folder, and the System folder), you might want to look into one of the cache cleaners, such as Cache Out X or Tiger Cache Cleaner (among many others), to make the job simpler.

I think I may add a general cache emptying routine to my crontab, just to make sure it happens somewhat regularly, given how much trouble this one incident caused.

Widgets calling

Macworld logoThe recently-released OS X 10.4.7 update included a not-announced Dashboard widget update feature which silently checks to make sure that your widgets are valid. I agreed with the need for such a feature, but wrote about how I think Apple could have implemented things a bit better.

Smoothing things over

Macworld logoEver wondered about the various settings in the Font smoothing style pop-up of the Appearance System Preferences panel? Thanks to a recent crash, I was forced to revisit the font smoothing settings, which I literally hadn't looked at in years.

I found the results of my tests somehwat interesting, so I wrote them up for

How I back up my websites

I’ll start off with an admission: I’m a relatively clueluess user of the command line in OS X. Sure, I know my way around the basics such as ls, cp, mv, and I have a working knowledge of vi, and a basic understanding of some of the more advanced programs. But that’s about it—minimal shell scriping skills, no knowledge of regular expressions, and only the most basic understanding of pipes, redirection, combining commands, etc. So I find myself regularly amazed by the power of what (for a Unix wizard) would be an amazingly simple task.

Such was the case yesterday. Earlier in the day, I’d had a bit of a scare with our family blog site (like robservatory, it runs on WordPress). Due to a mix-up on the administrative end, the WordPress database for the site was deleted. Historically, I’ve been very paranoid about backing up the macosxhints’ sites. But for whatever, reason, that same paranoia didn’t extend to my two personal sites. Hence, I had no backup to help with the problem. Thankfully, the ISP did, and the family blog was soon back online without any loss of data. But I resolved to not let this happen again without a local backup of my own.

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10.4 + 0.3 = 311.6??

megabytes to upgrade

Well, it does when you're talking about installing 10.4 from the retail DVD, and then upgrading it to 10.4.3. I re-partitioned a portable FireWire drive tonight, so that I could put both 10.3 and 10.4 on it for testing purposes. I haven't clean installed 10.4 since the release back in April, and I hadn't really noticed just how many megabytes of updates there have been. Suffice it to say, there've been a lot! Seven packages the first time around, then five more after that.

To Apple's credit, I guess?, it only took two restarts to get the system up to date. But I shudder to think about those who lack broadband access to the net; even a moderately-speedy DSL connection would groan under the weight of these updates. Approximate download times for 311.6MB:

Connection SpeedDownload Time (Hrs:Mins)
128Kbps (ISDN)5:40
512Kbps (DSL)1:25
1.5Mbps (Cable)0:29
6Mpbs (Fast Cable)0:07

So what does one do if you only have modem access? From my memories of my 56Kbps days, the modem more routinely connected at about 44Kbps, meaning probably something like 15 hours of download time. And I don't believe Apple allows user groups to distribute update CDs any more (do they?). Anyone out there still on a modem connection? If so, how do you stay current with 100MB+ updates becoming routine nowadays? (Note that this doesn't just apply to Apple's updates; even updates for things like Quicken, Acrobat, etc. are swelling into the multi-megabyte size).

Strangest OS X screenshot …. ever?

Last weekend, I was working on a relatively large--OK, a huge--17.8GB QuickTime movie. This was the raw capture of 35 or so minutes of flying time in X-Plane.

strange screenshotI had the original movie open in QuickTime Player, and I had also exported a notably smaller (200MB) H.264 version, which I was playing with in Motion. Then, for no apparent reason, all heck broke lose--both screens on my system suddenly went 70s psychedelic on me, as seen in the grab at right of a portion of the screen (click for full-size).

In addition to the messed-up colors, things were also not in the right spot on the screen--you can see this with the location of the Smart Folders object in the large screenshot. The system seemed to be working fine; I just couldn't make anything out on either screen--except the menubar (but not the menus themselves). So I used Command-Tab and the 'Q' key to quit various running apps, including QuickTime and Motion.

After quitting nearly everything I had running, the screen returned to nearly normal--the only remaining issue was that objects' shadows were really messed up, showing pieces of other windows instead of a fuzzy gray/black shadow. I logged out and back in, and that fixed that issue.

What this reminded me of, more than anything, was mucking about with my Apple ][ back in the day--if you "poked" some data into the wrong memory locations, you could mess up your display in quite a creative manner! It almost seemed like that's what OS X was doing--I had used all the available RAM, so it started using the video card's RAM for storage instead. Yes, I know this isn't possible, and it's in no way what happened.

Anyway, in five years of OS X usage, this is by far the oddest visual distortion I've ever seen, so I thought I'd share. I was quite impressed that the system itself was still usable--I have yet to restart since that incident, in fact, and all has been fine after the re-login.

A tale of three hardware interfaces…

As some of you may know, I’m relatively paranoid about backups—you can’t have too many, and you can’t make them often enough :). The site is backed up twice a day via a set of scripts that use ssh and scp (and are scheduled via cron). For my personal machine, I use two external hard drives. The smaller of these two (an older version of this 250GB Maxtor drive) is used throughout the day to make backups of my key files. It also holds secondary copies of key things such as my iTunes music collection, iPhoto library, and digital video snippets. The larger of the two drives is a LaCie 500GB Triple Disk Extreme. At the end of each day, I run a full backup of the machine to the LaCie disk, and then power it down. But this article isn’t really about my backup strategy; it’s about the three interfaces on the Triple Disk Extreme (TDE), and a simplistic comparison of their performance on my machine (Dual 2.0GHz G5, first gen).

The TDE is so named due to its FireWire2, FireWire, and USB2 interfaces. A recent conversation with Chris Breen about FireWire vs. USB2 on the iPods led me to run a few tests on my hard drive, just to see how each interface performed. What got me started down this road is some stuff that Chris wrote in a couple of different iPod reviews:

In my tests, a dual-processor 2GHz Power Mac G5 filled a 6GB mini in 15 minutes and 17 seconds over USB 2.0. Using a FireWire connection shaved a scant 18 seconds off that time.

The nano is also quicker to sync than other iPods. I synced the same 903-track playlist on a 4GB nano and a 4GB iPod mini. It took 9 minutes and 15 seconds to sync the nano. The mini took nearly 7 minutes longer to sync, finally finishing the job in 16 minutes and 13 seconds.

So while USB 2.0 may not fare so well with other devices, as far as iPods go, syncing performance doesn’t appear to be a problem.

I thought I’d use my TDE to run a few tests in the Finder, just to see how things compared there. Read on for my results…

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Multi-button mice are great timesavers

mouse picOne of the first things I tell new Mac users is to ditch the one-button mouse that Apple provides. Sure, it's simple and easy to use, but it also has limited power and you end up using way too many keyboard modifiers to get things done. There are lots and lots of multi-button mice out there, and all of them work (to at least some degree) with OS X: the second mouse button is functional by default, and will bring up the contextual menu -- that's the menu you normally reach with a control-click.

But for the most productive computing experience, find yourself a mouse that comes with OS X drivers, so that you can program all of the buttons. Logitech makes a full line of OS X-compatible mice, as do Kensington (wired, mobile) and Microsoft (check compatibility for each device; some are PC only). But this isn't a post about which mouse to use (I've chosen the Wireless Intellimouse Explorer, used for the icon in this story), but more a discussion on how to best put all those buttons to use once you have a multi-button mouse. So I thought I'd share my configuration, and ask what others might be using...

The Intellimouse Explorer has five buttons (two main buttons, a scroll wheel button, and two buttons under the thumb) plus a scroll wheel with "tilt" side-to-side scrolling. Here's how I have the five buttons set up:

  • Left button: Click
  • Right button: Control-click
  • Scroll wheel button: Dashboard (F12)
  • Top thumb button: Exposé all-windows mode (F9)
  • Bottom thumb button: Activate DejaMenu. If you haven't seen this handy little program, it's a huge timesaver. It puts any program's menubar one keyboard combo away -- no mousing required. I just assigned its keyboard combo to the thumb button, and presto, menus wherever I want them.

So that's how I have my mouse set up. I find it a huge timesaver, especially the thumb button tied to DejaMenu. No more wasted time moving to the top left to grab File when it's a simple mouse click away. In general, I love the mouse and I've gotten very used to how I've got it set up.

The one thing I find lacking in the Microsoft software is that you can't assign custom commands to modified button clicks -- i.e. I'd love to be able to assign Command-Option-button 4 to something other than the button 4 default. I think this should be possible, given that OS X can read command- and control-clicks, but Microsoft's software doesn't allow it.

Anyone else have any interesting configurations, and/or mouse recommendations?