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GNU Bash Reference Manual - Learning made easy Pick of the Week
Bash Reference Manual iconThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
For last week's (the week of June 14th) Pick of the Week (grossly delayed due to my home connectivity issues), I have actually picked a manual -- a Bash reference manual, no less.

I recently decided to switch from tcsh to bash, given that bash is now the default OS X shell, I figured it was time to cut over and learn something new. But as an occasional user of tcsh, the differences in cutting over to bash were enough to frustrate me ... until Kirk M. pointed me to Chet Ramey and Brian Fox's excellent (and free) Bash Reference Manual. You can purchase this book in stores, or download a free version from the publisher's site.

Although I've only had time to work through a couple of chapters, and then jump around to various bits I wanted to work on (prompts and aliases), I've found it to be well written and relatively easy to follow. I still have a long way to go in my personal cutover to bash, but this book is definitely helping to ease the way...
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CosmicPainter - Kaleidoscope creation in realtime Pick of the Week
CosmicPainter iconThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Another not-too-useful but quite fun PotW this week. CosmicPainter is a kaleidoscope generator with all sorts of options for color (including colors changing over time), shape, transparency, and rotation speed. Basic operation is quite simple -- click a brush, set the color options, set the rotation speed, then click and hold on the drawing window. The window is spinning at whatever speed you specified, and the brush will paint as long as you hold the mouse button down -- so to form a perfect circle, just click and hold. To make a spiral, click and drag. It's much harder to explain than it is to actually do, so just download it and give it a try! When you're done, you can maximize the shape on the current monitor, or even mirror it full-screen to a second screen.

You can make some interesting shapes [692KB movie] quite easily. The only real omission is that you can't export a QuickTime movie of your creation, just still PNG images (I created the linked movie above by using SnapzPro X). As I said, not the world's most important piece of software, but a fun diversion for yourself or your kids...
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PlasmaDesign.co.uk - Wonderful desktop images Pick of the Week
PlasmaDesign iconThe macosxhints Rating:
10 of 10
[Score: 10 out of 10]
  • Developer: PlasmaDesign
  • Price: £7.00 [$12.84] -- lifetime membership
This week's PotW is slightly off the usual track -- it's a website, not really a program, but the stuff there is purchasable and downloadable, so it's close enough in my book!


PlasmaDesign.co.uk is the home to Rob Randtoul's amazing digital artwork, a very small sample (both in pixels and quantity) of which you see above this line. I first stumbled on Rob's work when looking for desktop images to fit my 1920x1200 screen; they were few and far between, until I found PlasmaDesign. In looking through the site, I was simply astounded by the quality and variety of the images, separated into Aqua, Landscape, and Abstract categories.

If you don't like computer-generated landscapes and images, you probably won't like much of what Rob has to offer (though I still think the Dew Drop image shown above is astonishing). But if you like such imagery, give the site a quick visit, and you might like what you see. There are a number of free images available; the £7.00 lifetime membership fee gets you access to his collection of widescreen images (up to 1920x1200), dual-screen images, and a bundle of images in OS X's screensaver format.

I realize there are literally hundreds of sites with tens of thousands of free desktop images out there, so why go somewhere that charges for their images? Well, Rob only charges £7.00 ($12.84 as of Friday's exchange rates) for a lifetime membership, and the quality of his work is, to me, well worth that small fee. New images are added regularly, and I continue to be impressed by Rob's amazing designs. Finally, having 1920x1200 images available saves me the time required to upsize smaller images (not to mention the resulting loss in quality).

As an aside, this week's PotW was heavily influenced by the fact that I've been busy updating the Mac OS X Hints book for the past couple of months ... which means I've been staring at lovely grayish or blueish neutral backgrounds for that whole time (the neutral backgrounds are used to take the literally hundreds of screenshots required for the book). But tonight, I wrapped up the final first-cut pass at the update, which means I'm once again able to enjoy Rob's artwork! Goodbye dull gray desktop!
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Descent2 - Retro 3D space tunnel exploration game Pick of the Week
Descent2 iconThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
A little retro flashback this week (late again, sorry; I'll try to get back to Mondays for Picks starting next week!). One of the first "3D" games that I recall playing many many moons ago has now been released as freeware for OS X -- Descent2. Near as I can tell, Descent2 was released for the PC in February of 1996, and I think the Mac version followed sometime soon thereafter. The basic premise is that you're piloting a ship around inside a series of mineshafts, looking for a reactor, which you then have to trigger and get back out of the mine system. What made Descent interesting was the assortment of weapons and enemies. What made it sickening (literally, to some) was the complete freedom of movement -- your ship could be right side up or upside down, and you had to be comfortable flying it in any sort of orientation.

The OS X version owes its existence to the Descent2 project, D2X. From that point, it was ported to OS X by a couple of people. The version that I ran and linked here is from 'mcotis at yahoo dot com,' but I don't know anything more than that.

If you haven't played Descent2, I'm not sure it's worth the trouble to download and play. You'll be greeted with some nicely-updated versions of 1996's best graphics, and you'll be severely disappointed if you've been playing Halo and Unreal Tournament! On the other hand, if you played the original, this is a near-perfect OS X implementation with only a couple minor bugs. Since the program uses the original data files, this isn't an interpretation of Descent2, this is Descent2. You can even listen to iTunes while you play -- just create a playlist called D2X, and Descent2 will choose and play songs at random from that playlist as you search and destroy.

I doubt I'll be playing it all the way through again, but boy, does this bring back some memories of my gaming years past!
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PIXTURE STUDIO - A collection of useful CM plug-ins Pick of the Week
PixtureStudio iconThe macosxhints Rating:
10 of 10
[Score: 10 out of 10]
This week's Pick of the Week is actually a slew of interesting contextual menu (CM) plug-ins from Hide Itoh, who has been involved with Macs, icons, and useful stuff for quite a while. On his site (on the Product Page linked above), you'll find a number of potentially useful (and completely free) contextual menu plug-ins.

Read the rest of the hint for the ones that I found most useful...
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QuickAccessCM - Contextual menu file manager Pick of the Week
QuickAccessCM imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Do you get the most out of the Finder's easily customized contextual menu (the one that appears when you control-click on a file or folder)? This menu is one of the best places to store often-used commands for files and folders, and there are tons of third-party contextual menu items out there that do just that. My personal favorite is the QuickAcessCM, which gives you four new contextual menu options, highlighted in red at left. When you control-click on a file or folder, you can select the Quick Access item (more on that later), or any of move, copy or alias operations. All menus are easily customizable, either from the menus themselves, or via a separate preferences application that you can run.

Each menu option is relatively self-explanatory; you can store often-used folders in the Move, Copy, and Make Alias menu items for easy control-click filing. For instance, in this screenshot, I'm using the Move To option to move a recent download from my desktop into the Downloads folder. The Quick Access menu is a launcher, of sorts -- unlike the other options, you can store folders and files in the Quick Access option. Select a file from the pop-up, and the program launches; select a document, and it opens in its creating application; select a folder, and the folder opens in the Finder. While it won't replace Butler for me, it does the job and keeps very often used objects a mouse click away.

The only reason I marked QuickAccessCM down from a 10 is that the "move" item only works correctly for folders on the same drive. If you move an item from one drive to another, it actually copies. But this is a minor inconvenience at worst...

QuickAccessCM is free, easy to install, and easy to use. I've been using it for quite a while, and just have always overlooked it, as it feels like it's part of the OS. There are some additional (free and non-free) contextual menu plug-ins on the Contextual Menu Workshop site; check them out if you'd like your contextual menu to become even more powerful (The Grim Ripper is another favorite of mine, for quickly killing resource forks). And yea, it's Thursday and I'm just getting this online ... sorry!
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KeyCue - A cheat sheet for keyboard shortcuts Pick of the Week
KeyCue imageThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
This week's Pick of the Week is chosen primarily for it's unique premise -- as seen at left (larger image) KeyCue is a way to see every existing keyboard shortcut for the currently active application. Yes, keyboard shortcuts are documented by their very existence. But many are buried in sub-menus and may not be seen often. KeyCue makes it easy to see all of them in one spot. The yellow highlights reflect the keys that are currently pressed (command and option in the screenshot), which is an easy way to see which shortcuts are available; they change as you press and release the various modifiers.

Using KeyCue couldn't be any easier -- double-click it to launch it, then just press and hold Command. After a couple seconds (the delay is configurable), the KeyCue menu pops to the foreground, showing all the active app's shortcuts. To configure KeyCue, you can either double-click it in the Finder when it's already running, or use its shortcut, listed last in the pop-up window. Configuration options include the delay before appearing, what actions make the palette vanish, how to group the shortcuts, and whether or not to include the Services menu's shortcuts.

Reasons for markdowns: KeyCue only "sees" real keyboard shortcuts that are listed in menus; it doesn't, for instance, show Control-K in Excel, which is a shortcut for Delete Row. This is clearly not KeyCue's fault; those shortcuts don't report themselves to the OS, as I understand it. One other annoyance, to me at least, is that the menu pops up in the center of the screen. I'd prefer it if it popped up under the cursor, as that's typically where my eyes are looking. With two displays, it's even worse, as the center of the main screen can be quite a distance from whatever window you might be working in. Finally, I was a bit irked that KeyCue added itself to my startup items without even asking -- there's a preference to disable it, but it defaults to "Load at startup." I'm seeing this in more and more apps, and liking it less and less each time.

KeyCue isn't the kind of application that I'd use regularly (I spend so much time in my few key apps that the shortcuts are second nature by now), so I don't think I'll be purchasing it. However, I thought it was a unique concept, and one that could definitely help you learn the shortcut keys in a hurry, so I thought it deserved a spot as a (late, sorry!) Pick of the Week.
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DejaMenu - The menubar as a pop-up menu Pick of the Week
DejaMenu imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
I first heard about this app over on the Forum site a week or so ago, and it's quickly become a key utility on my home machine. What does it do? Very simply, DejaMenu will create the frontmost application's menubar as a pop-up menu at the mouse's current location, as seen at left being used in Safari. If you have multiple monitors, or even just one large screen, this can be a great timesaver -- moving your mouse from the bottom right corner to the top left corner of a dual-monitor setup can be a real drag, so to speak. With DejaMenu, the menu is but one keyboard combo away at all times, regardless of your mouse's position.

The first thing I really like about DejaMenu is that it's an application. It's not a preference pane, or any sort of low-level extension to the system. So I have no fears about it crashing my machine or my applications when in use (and I haven't had a single crash since installing it, so it seems quite stable). When you launch it for the first time, it asks you to assign a keystroke sequence to activate the pop-up menu. Make sure you pick one that's not in use by another application (and you'll need to have "Enable access for assistive devices" enabled in your Universal Access preferences panel). This is where DejaMenu became a 9 instead of a 10 -- I wasn't able to use the Control key in my keystroke combo, which somewhat limits the available choices.

Once assigned, DejaMenu is now running, and you'll have a menubar pop-up in every application (well, probably not in Classic!). If you double-click DejaMenu in the Finder again by accident, you'll get a pop-up menu over DejaMenu with three choices -- Configure, Help, and Quit. Choose Configure to assign a new hot key, Help for help, and Quit, well, you get the idea. DejaMenu runs without a dock icon or menubar icon, so this is the way to quit the program if you ever wish to do so.

The real power of DejaMenu, though, comes into play with a multi-button mouse. I assigned the seldom-used right-side button on my Microsoft five-button mouse to send the DejaMenu activation keystroke. So now I have one-click no-keyboard access to the menubar, regardless of where I happen to have the mouse on the screen. DejaMenu is a great freeware app (as is Karl's XShelf, a prior Pick of the Week selection).
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SilverKeeper - A freeware GUI backup tool Pick of the Week
Silverkeeper imageThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
There are many backup options for OS X -- everything from Retrospect to CCC to the command line, and probably seven other apps I've not listed. I won't claim to have tried them all. I own a couple of them, and have used a number of others. This week's Pick is yet another option in the category, and I picked it because (a) it's free, (b) it's relatively easy to use, (c) it seems to do the job quite well, and (d) (very cool!) it will wake your Mac to run your specified backups.

I was looking for a quick and simple way to back up key directories on my machine to my backup hard drive, and I wanted to be able to keep multiple aged copies of some of those directories. Although I could've used one of the solutions I already own, or rolled my own via cron and the command line, I like to try new stuff, so off I went in search of alternatives. I'm not sure where I found it, but I stumbled on LaCie's SilverKeeper after some Googling. The SilverKeeper interface is quite clean, with a left-side pop-up for the backup set name and source, right-side pop-up for the backup type and destination, and a window below with four tabs for Status, Schedule, Options, and Exclusions.

You use SilverKeeper by creating a new set and giving it a name ('robg_home'), then pointing to the source folder. On the other side of the screen, you choose the type of backup -- I'm simply using "Backup Set," which is a standard backup, but you can also synchronize or compare the source and destination. In the tabbed window below, the Status tab starts blank, but will show log information after a backup run. The Schedule tab lets you set the schedule for the chosen set. This part of the interface is a bit unwieldy, as it uses a pop-up for Daily and each day of the week. The default is Daily; if you want a backup only on a particular day, you first click the pop-up and uncheck Daily. Then you have to click the pop-up again, and click (or unclick) each day you do (or do not) want seen. So if you want only a Thursday backup, you click the pop-up something like eight times. This would be much better handled by a checkbox arrangement, but you really only have to worry about it once for each backup set. There's also a lock icon here which you can use to prevent the machine from waking from sleep to run its backups, as well as a "Backup on startup" checkbox.

On the Options tab, you can create multiple backup copies -- I have checked "Copy set to folder" with three copies for my Home folder; this basically gives me three complete daily "look back" backups to pick from, if I ever need them (also remember to check Never Remove Files if you use this option). Finally, the Exclusions tab lets you specify portions of the source that you don't want backed up. On my Home folder backup, for instance, I have excluded the Library -> Caches and Library -> Icons folders.

Although SilverKeeper runs from the Finder, it copies invisible files (all the dot files in my home directory are backed up daily), and handles ownership and permissions as well (I backup my Webserver folder, and all the root/admin permissions are kept exactly as they should be). Each backup set can have separate schedules, which lets you easily customize your backup routine -- I back up my web server and home folders daily, my less-often-used data storage drives every other day, and my major applications and video editing drives on a weekly basis. Since the machine will wake itself up to run the backups, I have them all set to run at 2:00am, when my machine is (usally!) not doing anything other than sleeping.

SilverKeeper isn't perfect, but given that it's free, it does an amazingly good job at what it does. It's not for everyone -- if you need to backup to tape, for instance, you'll need a more full-blown backup program. But iif you have a need for hard drive copy of your key data files, it's probably worth a look-see.
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Sproing - A spring (not the season!) simulator Pick of the Week
Sproing imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Odd picks two weeks in a row, ah well! Sproing is a um, spring simulator. I really can't think of a practical use for it in my job (either day job or macosxhints job), but it is fun to play with. The basic premise is that you put a bunch of nodes and springs on a blank slate, connect them, set some basic stiffness, damping, and gravity values, and then toss the sproingy around the screen. But instead of reading about it, just watch this short movie (644KB) to see what I'm talking about.

As I said, there's no real point to this app for me, but it's just kind of an interesting program, and sometimes that's enough for PotW status. In addition to opening the included sample sproings, you can check out SproingWorld and download sproings designed by others -- I like Beam2+skin4.sprg [3.2KB download].

That's about it; just an oddball, somewhat interesting, and fun to use program this week...oh yea, I gave it a 9 out of 10 because it's lacking the ability to add a rendered skin to the sproings (imagine the snake with a nice Panther faux fur wrapper!)
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