Archive for March, 2021

Adjust brightness and contrast on a CRT monitor

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

So far, most of my posts on this blog have been software-related, but the experience of a computer is equally related to its hardware, especially to the physical interfaces through which we interact with our computers: the mouse and the keyboard, naturally, but also the monitor.

I personally have four monitors in my apartment: three CRTs (including my iMac) and one IPS. If you own a CRT monitor, you probably spend quite a bit of time adjusting the brightness and contrast. Because CRTs don’t produce as bright a picture as modern alternatives, you often need to re-adjust it depending on the brightness of the room. And to me, it’s never been obvious what the perfect setting is.

For those who recognize themselves, I recently found a page written by Charles Poynton that explains what the brightness and contrast settings actually mean. It turns out they mean the opposite to what I’ve understood them to mean!

In reality – if I’ve understood it correctly – “brightness” controls the darkness of blacks, whereas “contrast” controls the brightness of whites. Once you’ve set “brightness” to a level such that black truly looks like black, but the image isn’t too dark, then you can freely adjust “contrast” to control the overall brightness of the picture. In other words, “contrast” is brightness!

It is all explained very well on the page linked above. Personally, I found the tip immensely useful.

Two CRT monitors

Two of my CRT monitors. The left one is for my main PC, while the right one is for my server.

Automate file tasks with File Buddy droplets

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021

On classic Mac OS and OS X alike, AppleScript is a very useful tool for automating commonly performed tasks. I’ve previously shared a couple of ways in which AppleScript can be used to improve Finder workflow. That was mainly with respect to window management. For simple, but tedious tasks involving file metadata, I find a program called File Buddy to be a better option.

File Buddy is a Swiss army knife of file management. While the application has an incredible depth, you can fundamentally think of it as a powerful version of Finder’s Info window. If you open File Buddy, press File > Get Info… and select a file (or, after rebuilding the desktop file, just drag and drop it on File Buddy’s icon), then the following window will appear:

File Buddy Info window

In File Buddy’s Info window, you can inspect ­ and manually modify ­ the value of any given property of the file. In the screenshot, you can see that I’ve queued up a couple of changes, indicated by the red check marks, that I can apply by pressing a Save button.

But ­ and this is one of File Buddy’s selling points ­ instead of pressing Save, you can press the icon with a water drop near the top of the window. This will save the queued changes in a File Buddy droplet, which is a small program that will apply those changes to any file that is dropped on it. Optionally, if you drag a folder, then the changes will be recursively applied to all the files in that folder.

File Buddy droplet on the desktop

File Buddy droplet on the desktop

Droplets are especially useful for quickly changing something a particular file, such as its creator code. For example, an interoperability issue between classic Mac OS and OS X is that OS X gives text clippings the creator code MACS, whereas classic Mac OS expects the creator code drag. This means that text clippings created on OS X cannot be opened on OS 9! To mitigate this, I have a droplet on my desktop called “Fix Clipping”, onto which I can drag any file to change its creator code to drag.

In general, File Buddy’s droplets are great for quickly opening a file with a different program. Let’s say I want to open an HTML document in BBEdit. Instead of manually opening the file using BBEdit’s Open… menu, I simply drop it on my “Make BBEdit” droplet, which changes the creator code to R*ch. Now I can double-click the file to open it in BBEdit.

What’s so great about droplets is that they’re a graphical, Macintosh-like solution to the problem of bulk processing. While File Buddy offers a more conventional list-based bulk processing feature, droplets are what really sets the product apart. Just like the Macintosh itself, they are simple, elegant and easy to use.

File Buddy 7, the last version with support for both OS 9 and OS X, has graciously been released for free. File Buddy is still being developed for modern versions of OS X and is available for sale on Skytag Software’s web site.

Reflections on the blog

Friday, March 19th, 2021

In the late 2000s, I used to run a moderately successful Swedish blog about technology – Softtype – which no longer exists. Around 2011, I lost interest and stopped doing it. This new blog is my first real attempt at blogging in a decade.

That decade has given me some valuable perspective on blogging as a whole. I have a clearer idea of what makes for good content, and I’ve realized that you can’t write about something in the long term unless you’re really passionate about it.

That’s what I want to write about in this post. It seems early for a “state of the blog”, seeing as how I’ve just started it, so consider it more of a “state of my blogging” from 2008 until now, with special focus on my new blog.

Content

In terms of content, I think a blog like mine has to strike a balance between more philosophical and more practical posts. While practical posts are more useful, they often feel a bit shallow. I feel like a couple of my OS X posts are like that. They’re useful information, but more tutorials than blog posts, really.

On the other hand, philosophical posts, while having the potential to be deep and interesting, are rarely very useful from a practical standpoint. Sometimes, they just serve to stir up emotion; in some sense, I think my post about using old computers is like that. It’s gotten the blog a lot of traffic, though, and I’m grateful for that!

But the perfect blog post, in my opinion, should be both philosophical and practical. It should open the mind to new ways of thinking, in a very straightforward, pragmatic way. Of all my posts so far, I think the one about AppleScripts for the OS 9 Finder has succeeded best in this regard.

To apply that idea to this blog post, I’ll include a small tip that I find helps me with the wording of post titles: use the imperative mood instead of the present participle. For example:

  • Restore Leopard-like Exposé in Snow Leopard” instead of restoring
  • Stream audio from iOS to Snow Leopard via AirPlay” instead of streaming

A lot of titles involve a verb, especially when it comes to more practical posts, and reading -ing over and over again gets old.

WordPress

After experimenting with alternatives (including a short venture to build my own blog engine), I settled for WordPress as the back end for the blog. I was initially worried that the admin interface would be slow or unusable in older browsers, but it turns out that it’s still not too bad, as long as you re-enable the classic editor.

My reason for choosing WordPress is simply that, in terms of pure function, it is unparalleled. It just works, and it works very well. Looking around, there frankly doesn’t seem to any real (free) alternative. WordPress gives me so much for free. Out of the box, I can use MarsEdit to write and edit posts. I get pingbacks and trackbacks and threaded comments.

WordPress is big enough to be described as a monopoly, and a monopoly comes with monopoly benefits – most importantly, stability. I’m happy to say that the WordPress of 2021 is still pretty similar to the WordPress I learned to love in the 2000s.

As you can see, I use the old default theme for WordPress. This is a deliberate choice! Here’s how I’m thinking: Because the default theme is so recognizable, most visitors will immediately see that this is a blog. This means they will also understand that there are other posts they can read, that they can leave comments on posts and that they can subscribe to the blog via RSS. This is a big benefit, both for them and for me.

Future

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about blogging, and really any type of content creation, it’s that it’s best to keep your plans about the future to yourself, because the majority of the plans that humans make don’t work out. That said, personal computing is a topic that is dear to my heart, and it is hard for me to imagine that I would cease to have things to say about it.

Whether anyone reads it is another question. Blogs sure seem dead, at least in comparison to the 2000s. But who knows – maybe they aren’t as dead as they seem.

Why use old computers and operating systems?

Thursday, March 18th, 2021

On this blog, I write about the various computers I use and about the operating systems I use on them. Apart from Windows 7, which is relatively modern, these include Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard, which at this point is quite old, and Mac OS 9, which is practically ancient. I’d like to talk a bit about why I use such old systems.

Joy

I’ve mentioned before that, to me, computers are more than just a means to an end. I enjoy them or dislike them to the extent that they are a reflection of myself, to the extent that I can identify myself with them. They bring me immense joy – as well as much irritation, unfortunately…

Because I see computing as an interest, a hobby and a passion, I don’t like to use computers and operating systems that I don’t enjoy using, in the same way that somebody who enjoys literature isn’t interested in reading literature that they think is poorly written. That’s why I refuse to use Windows 10. The poor user interface just hurts my soul.

It happens to be that some of the best, most well-designed, most enjoyable user interfaces are buried in history. There is no modern equivalent to the Macintosh. If I want an enjoyable computing experience, then I am forced to look in the past.

Apps

Even from a totally pragmatic standpoint, there are good reasons not to reject old computers. To me, the most glaring example is HyperCard, a revolutionary application for the Macintosh which literally does not exist on modern operating systems. If you’ve never used it, it’s hard to appreciate just how incredible it was, but imagine if spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel stopped being developed and eventually just disappeared – that’s the level of significance that HyperCard had.

Quite literally, the only way to use HyperCard is to get a hold of an old Mac – or emulate it, but emulation always falls short of the real deal. That’s why HyperCard alone is a pretty clear reason to use Mac OS 9 today. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I regularly boot up my iMac G3; once you’ve discovered it, HyperCard is just too useful to give up.

Example of a HyperCard stack

I use HyperCard to keep track of the Russian literature that I read.

Specificity

When it comes to retro computing, the inevitable question is how to access the web. The answer is that it isn’t always possible. My iMac G3 is technically able to browse the web, but it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, nor a very useful one. My 2009 Mac Mini running Snow Leopard handles it relatively well, but even Snow Leopard has problems accessing a lot of modern web sites.

I think the only solution is to stop expecting every computer to be general-purpose. In the human world outside of computers, general-purpose tools are pretty rare. No one expects there to be a single screw that fits all holes.

If we applied this type of thinking to computers, I think we could have a healthier relationship to them. I’m quite happy for my iMac to be my HyperCard machine. As long as I have a way to transfer data to and from it, it works rather well.

In fact, as cell phones become more and more general-purpose, I suspect there will be more room for non-general-purpose personal computers. There is a ton of software, just like HyperCard, waiting to be discovered in the depths of computer history, and the computers needed to run them are cheap. If you like WordStar, why not get an old DOS machine? Even if WordStar is the only program you’ll run on it, it might be a worthwhile endeavor – as long as you have space for it.

Improve OS 9 Finder workflow with AppleScript

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

The modern Finder, which was introduced into Mac OS X from NeXTSTEP, is a file manager, much like Microsoft’s Explorer or the countless similar programs on Linux. But the words “file manager” can hardly describe the original Finder, which accompanied the Mac from its inception until the last version of Mac OS 9. It was an interface in a much deeper sense of the word. Interacting with the file system through a file manager is akin to drawing with the mouse. It works, sort of, but there’s a degree of separation between you and the drawing. Using the classic Finder, however, is like drawing directly with your hands. To the classic Macintosh user, there was no separation between the Finder and the file system.

This is why many were unhappy to see Apple abandon the classic Finder – often called the “spatial” Finder – with the release of Mac OS X, and it is why Mac OS 9 is such a joy to use even today, twenty years after its final release.

While great by default, the Finder interface can be improved even further with the use of QuicKeys and AppleScript. QuicKeys lets you define custom shortcut keys, both global and application-specific, to run arbitrary AppleScript code. Below, I share some of my favorite AppleScripts for the Finder.

Two cascaded Finder windows

Two Finder windows arranged using the Cascade script.

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Change the language of a specific OS X app

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

When taking screenshots for this blog, I always have to temporarily change the language of whichever application I’m writing about to English, as normally my system language is Swedish. Thankfully, this is a fairly simple task.

Update: It turns out there is an easier way to do this, posted by Yanik Magnan.

All language files are located inside the application folder > Contents > Resources. (To access the application folder of any app, right-click it and choose View Contents.) Each language is represented by a folder with the extension .lproj. For example:

  • English.lproj
  • Dutch.lproj
  • fi.lproj (Finnish)
  • sv.lproj (Swedish)

If you temporarily or permanently remove any of the non-English directories, the application will use English. It is this method that I use myself to take English-language screenshots.

If you want to use another language that is not English, then you must rename the target language’s folder to the name of your system language. For example, if your system language is Swedish and you want to the application to be in Dutch:

  1. Rename sv.lproj to sv.lproj.old
  2. Rename Dutch.lproj to sv.lproj

As you cannot rename these folders in the Finder, you have to use the mv command in Terminal.

Dutch Terminal

Terminal.app in Dutch.

Restore Leopard-like Exposé in Snow Leopard

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

When I switched to Mac, Exposé was one of the features that I fell in love with particularly. Switching from Windows XP, the animation alone was incredible. And it was not only a visually appealing feature, but a very useful one too. When activated, Exposé drags all the windows out from underneath one another, letting you choose freely between all open windows.

One of the reasons why Exposé was so useful was that it arranged windows in a very similar way to the way you already had them arranged. If you had Safari on the left of the screen and Terminal on the right, then Exposé would try to place them as close to their respective original positions as possible. This made it very easy to find any given window quickly: you already knew where it was, you just used Exposé to reveal it from underneath another window.

Unfortunately, Snow Leopard (10.6) kind of ruined Exposé by modifying this window arrangement algorithm. Apple changed it to arrange windows in a neat grid, where each window was given the same size. This looked clean and organized, but the relative positions between the windows was completely disregarded. The Safari window on the left could be placed at any place, left or right, in the grid according to a completely unpredictable rule.

In Mountain Lion (10.8), an option was added to restore the old window arrangement behavior, but the damage was already done, as far as many users were concerned. Having gone two entire versions of OS X without any real useful version of Exposé, people had learned to rely on other strategies to navigate their windows. And an option is worth little compared to a default.

Fortunately for Snow Leopard users, though, there is a way to restore the old Exposé! It involves copying the Dock.app from an early beta build of Snow Leopard (10A380), in which the new behavior hadn’t yet been implemented. I’ve gone through the effort and uploaded the 10A380 version of Dock.app to several places:

You can replace your stock Dock.app with this older version via Terminal, as Finder doesn’t let you replace a running application. Further instructions, including on how to make it support other languages than English, are available in my MacRumors forum post (archived).

Classic Exposé in Snow Leopard

Connect to encrypted e-mail servers from Snow Leopard’s Mail.app

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

(Originally posted on the MacRumors forums.)

For some incomprehensible reason, few e-mail providers today support older versions of SSL, let alone unencrypted access. To connect to a modern e-mail server from an older client, such as the Mail.app included in Snow Leopard, you need a proxy server between your client and your server. One such proxy server is stunnel, a UNIX program that is also compatible with Mac OS X.

Here are instructions on how to install and configure stunnel for this. Note that you need to install MacPorts before doing any of this. Also, be careful. Some UNIX experience is required. If you feel you’re not up to the task, I think some version of Thunderbird would likely support both OS 10.6 and modern encryption.

Steps 4 and 6 (but not 5) can also be performed using LaunchControl.

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Stream audio from iOS to Snow Leopard via AirPlay

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

When I use Snow Leopard, I usually listen to music on my iPhone, which means I have to connect my headphones to my phone instead of my computer, and then back when I want to listen to something on the computer. This gets a bit annoying, especially if I get a call on the phone.

Luckily, I’ve found a way to play the audio from my iPhone on my Mac, even on an operating system as old as Snow Leopard. In fact, I suspect it would even work on Tiger. The solution is a piece of software called shairport-sync, which is available in the MacPorts repositories:

$ sudo port install shairport-sync

Now, you can start the receiving server:

$ shairport-sync -d

This starts it as a daemon. Use the -k option to kill it. If you want to start shairport-sync automatically at boot, I recommend using LaunchControl.

Now, you can select your Mac as an AirPlay audio output on your iOS device!