Are you obsessive about maintaining a "clean" inbox in Mail.app? I know I am; when I see waiting messages, I get nervous that I'm not doing something I should be doing! Enter Mail Act-On, a free (open source) plug-in for Mail. What is it? It's probably best described as an assistant for Mail. It works in conjunction with, but not in place of, Mail's built-in Rules mechanism. After installing the plug-in, you really won't notice anything new at all, other than its entry in the Preferences.
The first thing you need to do is decide how you want to use Mail Act-On. The Tips Page has some good ideas to get you started. In my case, I set up a new folder ("Actionable Mail") with four sub-folders: Urgent, Waiting for Detail, Response Required, and To be Filed. I named each of these with a numeric prefix, which helps sort them in the order I want, and ties into the Mail Act-On interface, as you'll see. After creating the folders, the next step is to create some new rules. Mail Act-On works by using a special prefix for rules, which you can set in its preferences. In my case, I left the settings at the default, which means I need to name my Rules as follows:
Act-On: | keystroke
Any rule named in this manner (keystroke is replaced by the key you'd like to use for that rule) will be handled by Act-On, not the built-in Rules engine. So I created new rules that simply transferred messages into the appropriate folder, and replaced keystroke with the keys I wanted to use (1 through 4). You can even create multiple rules with the same identifier, and they'll all be applied to the chosen messages.
You set Act-On rules to act on every message, and then specify the actions you wish those rules to take (just like with a normal rule). But the key to how Act-On works is that it does not run automatically with your rules on all incoming mail. Instead, the rules are activated when you hit the Act-On menu key, which is set to ` by default. . You access these rules after choosing a message (or messages) and then hitting the Act-On menu key. When you do, you'll see a pop-up bezel listing any Act-On rules you've created, as seen at left. Press the appropriate key, or click the action you wish taken, and it will be applied to all selected messages. Even faster than the bezel, though, is to simply press Control and the assigned keystroke. The action is immediately applied and a small floating bezel shows you exactly what was just done.
Mail Act-On probably isn't for everyone; it took me a bit of time to change my behavior to get the most out of it. But now that I've done so, I've found it a great timesaver. I can quickly code incoming emails which don't match any of my existing filters, and know that they've been placed in the appropriate action folder.
Note: This is the Pick of the Week for the week of June 13th.
For a long time, I've been looking for an application in which to store the literally hundreds of usernames, passwords, and software serial numbers. I had what I thought was a reasonably simple list of desired features: Sync with my Palm PDA, customizable categories, customizable templates, strong security, and a pleasant and easy-to-use interface. I've tried using Keychain Access, but there's no Palm sync, and I don't find the application particularly easy to use. So I downloaded every app I could find, and spent the last few weeks testing each of them. At the end, I can't say I found a hands-down winner, but I have grown to like PasswordWallet, though there's room for improvement...
My biggest complaint with most of the programs I tested (too many to list here) is that I found the interfaces needlessly complex for what should be a somewhat simple function, or they lacked Palm synchronization. In the end, it came down to a choice between PasswordWallet and DataViz's Passwords Plus. After using both for a while, I chose PasswordWallet for two main reasons. First, it's a true shareware package so you can test it out extensively (including Palm sync) before purchasing. Second, I found the interface easier to use. Passwords Plus has the advantage in the template department; they're customizable, whereas those in PasswordWallet are not -- I just used the Notes field to hold any miscellaneous data I wanted to store.
OK, so I took the easy way out this week -- I let Steve Jobs make the Pick of the Week :). When I saw him demo the Fast Amazon widget during the keynote yesterday, I knew it was going to become a favorite of mine. I look a lot of stuff up at Amazon. I buy a fair amount of stuff from them, too. However, I also use amazon.com as a good reference for questions like "what was that book called by XYZ?" But I don't really enjoy my time on the Amazon site -- there's just so much information presented, I get "circuit overload" in about five minutes of browsing.
Enter the Fast Amazon widget. Now I can run searches in a nice-looking, small floating window, and (most imporantly) view the results directly within the widget. I only visit the site now when I find a product that I'd like more detail on, or that I'm ready to purchase. You can specify which type of product to search for, and the widget remembers your recent searches. When you see something you like, a simple click takes you to that product page on the Amazon site.
I wish there were a way to control the number of results per page, but that's probably an Amazon restriction, not a widget issue. My only other complaint is that I'd like to be able to resize the widget vertically; I have enough screen space to show more of the results without scrolling, but the widget is of a fixed size. Finally, note that while this widget is free, Hans has encoded his Amazon affiliate ID in the link -- which I think is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in exchange for providing the widget for free.
I have Dashboard's dev mode enabled, and Fast Amazon is one of a very few widgets that have secured a spot on my desktop...
Xyle scope is one of those applications that's tough to categorize, but immediately useful if you match its target audience. For Xyle scope, that audience is anyone involved in building or maintaining web sites, or even those just curious about how sites are put together. Probably the best description comes directly from their site:
Xylescope has been designed and developed for looking underneath the surface of web pages as you surf the web ... Using Xylescope you can look forward to analysing complex CSS designs with incredible ease and experimenting with third-party sites, without having to download them onto your own computer first.
Using a resizable multi-paned window, you can view all of: any given web site (using WebKit, I believe), a hierarchical view of the CSS/HTML tags used on that page, the source code (in a number of different styles -- or add your own CSS for displaying the source), and the page's style sheet. Xyle scope's browser works in a "normal" mode, or (the really useful bit) in block mode. In block mode, you click on an element in a page, and the remainder of Xyle scope's panels change to show the relevant CSS and HTML. Want to see what a change will do? Just go ahead and make the change in the CSS area and hit return; you'll see it reflected in the browser pane immediately.
To get the most out of Xyle scope, a big monitor is a definite plus -- displaying a full-width browser window plus the associated info panes takes a lot of horizontal pixels. And since Xyle scope is doing a lot of analysis and formatting when you load a page, it can be somewhat slow. But it's the first tool of it's type that I can recall seeing. You can do similar things, of course, by downloading an entire site to your hard drive and then opening it in GoLive or DreamWeaver. But Xyle scope works with the pages as they exist on the server. I've only been using it for a few days, but I've already decided to send in my registration fee -- it's saved me some time on changes on my blog site, and I'm using it to increase my CSS knowledge by studying the CSS behind things I find interesting.
A simple PotW this week, as it really only does one thing. Taboo is a plug-in for Safari that warns you if you hit the red close button and you have more than one tab open. That's it. But in my workflow with hints, this is a key feature -- I usually open 15 to 20 tabs, each containing a hint to be reviewed. I will then open additional windows as I go to check other sites, documentation, etc. Sometimes, especially after having switched out of Safari and back, I'll accidentally click the close box on the wrong window, and presto, there go all my Hints tabs. Taboo prevents this, popping up a warning when I try to do something stupid.
Taboo also has the ability to override Safari's new "you're downloading an application, continue?" warning message, via a simple command-line preference switch. I don't use this feature, though, as I always leave this option disabled (although 10.4.1 fixes the issue with widgets auto-installing themselves, I still don't trust the browser to make decisions for me!).
I don't have a very long commute to work -- it's only a few mile drive each way. So I don't have a ton of radio listening time. And when I'm working at my machine, I've gotten in the (bad?) habit of just listening to the music I already own, instead of trying some of the iTunes streaming radio stations. As such, my exposure to new music is much less than it's been in years past.
Enter Indy. Indy is a cool new (to the Mac) application that is something like "smart radio" for indepedent music. As seen at left, Indy presents a simple one-panel interface for you to work with: volume control, prev/play-pause/next track buttons, song information (click on this section to jump to the artist's web page), and five rating stars. Though it's not the best-looking Mac interface I've seen, it's not too bad.
The rating stars are the key to the Indy system. As you listen to a track, click anywhere from one to five stars to rate the song being played. Songs that you rate only one or two stars will stop playing immediately; those rated three to five will play through to the end. These ratings are fed back to the Indy service, and over time, you'll start hearing more music that's similar to tracks you've rated higher in the past. Indy contains no spyware or adware (a quick look with Ethereal showed some back-and-forth traffic to their servers, but obviously, that's needed to download new stuff and communicate ratings on old stuff). When running, Indy seems to take use about the same amount of CPU as does iTunes, which is about 5% on my G5.
[Playing catch-up, this is the Pick of the Week for May 2nd]
In looking at the Pick of the Week table for 2005, I noticed that I hadn't yet chosen a game for the list. Coincidentally, I've also got a new ATI X800XT video card in my machine right now -- keep your eyes peeled for an upcoming review. So I was spending a lot of time the last week or so digging through my collection of games. I'd fire each one up and put it through its paces with the new card, comparing the performance to that of my original card, an ATI 9800 Pro. I'll save the details on the video card's performance for the future write-up, but suffice it to say, I was very impressed. During this revisit, I played a number of games that I haven't launched for quite a while, and had actually forgotten just how fun some of them were -- Nascar Racing 2003 Season among them. Hence, this week's PotW is a relatively old game...
There aren't a ton of "serious" driving games for the Mac. I can think of four relatively easily: Nascar Racing, Total Immersion Racing, Ford Racing II, and Virtual Grand Prix 2. I own all but Virtual Grand Prix (and I have a demo of that). Of the four, it's a close race (so to speak) for me between Total Immersion and Nascar for the best driving game title. Both are fun, but at the end of the day, Nascar's more fun for me because the tracks are familiar and the cars get to bump and bash each other regularly. I really like the game's attention to detail, and the graphics, while a couple years old, still look quite good. The crashes in Nascar can also be quite spectacular.
Read on for more about the game, as well as movie with some in-game footage...
[Playing catch-up, this is the Pick of the Week for April 25th]
Diablotin is a preference pane that helps you manage various installed bits of OS X. If you're having trouble with something, for instance, and you suspect that a certain preference pane or menu extra might be causing it, Diablotin will let you disable just that item. The interface is clean and easy to use, as seen at left (full-size version).
The left-hand side contains a list of categories, including Contextual Menu items, internet plug-ins, preference panes, QuickTime plug-ins, and even screen savers and sounds. On the right, you'll see either a description of the category, or (when you select an item in that category) a display showing the item's name, it's status, and it's version. To disable an item, authenticate and then just uncheck its box. Although some changes may take place immediately, you'll probably want to reboot to make sure everything gets reset (especially with Preference Panes, for instance). You can even optionally enable System Library items for individual deactivation. This is not really a feature you should take advantage of unless you really know what you're doing -- if you're not careful, you could easily wind up with a machine that may not work well at all.
I haven't had to use Diablotin very often since installing it, but it's nice knowing that I have fine-grain control over various elements of the system if I need it at some point in the future. Note that Diablotin works in both 10.3 and 10.4.
[Playing catch-up, this is the Pick of the Week for April 18th]
This week's pick came from a comment to the Add a Thesaurus to Pages hint -- thanks Deut3221 for the pointer! 1-ClickAnswers is sort of like a global knowledge miner for words. When it's running, you can highlight a word in any application, hit the 1-ClickAnswers hotkey, and be transferred to the program's mini-browser to view the results as seen on answers.com.
While the quality of the answers provided may vary depending on what you've chosen to look up, you're always sure to get a lot of information. Looking up the word loan, for instance, yielded entries in a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, an investment dictionary, a legal dictionary, the WordNet 'related words' dictionary, a page in Wikipedia, a whole slew of language translations, related topics, external links, and much more. Clicking links in 1-ClickAnswers keeps you in their mini-browser, but you can also copy and paste the URLs into your regular browser.
Though I seldom need this much info on a word, it's pretty cool to see it all pulled together and presented locally like that. Also, the hotkey seems to work in all applications -- Carbon, Cocoa, and even Java (I just tested it in jEdit, and it worked great). Even better, as soon as you quit the program, the hotkey is gone, and that's that. 1-ClickAnswers also installs a system-wide service that you can use from Cocoa and some Carbon apps. But since it lacks a shortcut and the hotkey works everywhere, I don't really see the point.
For a free app, it's really tough to beat the amount of info you get with 1-ClickAnswers. Just keep in mind that the sources are sometimes of variable quality (though it's hard to go wrong with the standard dictionary and thesarus results.
This week's Pick has been sitting in my "apps to test" folder for quite a while ... quite a long while. OSXplanet is a program that replaces your standard desktop picture with dynamically updated images of Earth, the moon, or any of the other planets in the solar system. Although it's interesting looking at the other planets, the Earth images are what I found most intriguing. You can highlight cities of interest, and you can show clouds, storms, certain satellites, volcanos, and earthquakes overlayed on the image of Earth. There are a number of map projection styles (everyone remember their high school geography classes?) to choose from, too, including azimuthal, hemishphere, Mercator, orthographic, etc. I personally prefer Rectangular, as it fills the screen with a good overview of the entire planet. Night and day are indicated by a sweeping dark and light band, showing exactly where the current sunrise and sunset are located.
You can view any planet from a perspective of any other planet, or you can precisely set the viewpoint based on latitude and longitude, and you can control the zoom and rotation of the view as well. Finally, you set how often you'd like OSXplanet to update the maps; the default is every 30 minutes. OSXplanet is controlled via a menubar icon; click it to get to the Preferences, to force an update to the current view, read the documentation, and more.
I find OSXplanet an interersting diversion from my usual background imagery; I'll fire it up every couple of days and let it run while I work, just to see what's happening across the globe.