Some simple tricks for Mac users. Do you know all of these?
Some simple tricks for Mac users. Do you know all of these?
I’m a big fan of my Apple AirTags. I have a few of them now, and they’ve been jolly useful on several occasions, enabling me to find things quickly that would otherwise have involved more time and stress, or to notice that something has been left behind and so recover it far sooner than would otherwise have been possible.
They’re very cunning devices. Tilly even has one on her collar now!
For those not familiar with the underlying technology, the general challenge with locating devices in the past has been that it typically involves two components: a GPS receiver (to find out where the item is), and a connection to the mobile phone network (to report that location to whomever may be looking for it). Both of these need significant battery power, so trackers have been bulky, required frequent recharging, and the phone connection generally implied a subscription. In the past, therefore, tracking has generally been reserved for valuable things which can carry big batteries, like cars, or like smartphones which happen already to have the necessary functions built-in and get recharged every night.
Since I have been known, just occasionally, to be a little absent-minded, I have made extensive use of Apple’s ‘Find my…’ system over the years to locate iPhones, iPads, even spouses. And before you scoff, I should mention that my knowledge of how to use it also once won me an enthusiastic embrace in the middle of a field from a rather beautiful young woman who was a complete stranger to me. So there! But that’s a story for another day…
Anyway, the AirTags have neither a GPS nor a big battery, and yet still manage to transmit their location back to you remarkably effectively in most circumstances. How do they do it? Well, they can be detected by any passing iPhone, and there are a billion of those moving around the world, so there’s a surprisingly good chance that if a human passes close to your lost bunch of keys, you’ll get to know about its location fairly soon.
The AirTags are also, I believe, the first large-scale deployment of UWB location technology, the details of which are beyond the scope of this post, but it basically means that if you have a recent iPhone, when you get really close to the Tag, you can be guided to it using a compass-needle-type display, in a way that would not be possible with something like Bluetooth alone. You can find out not just that your wallet is in this room, but that it’s behind this sofa cushion.
Still, my use of AirTags has been very practical and prosaic. Others have had more fun, and a YouTuber calling himself AirtagAlex has done some wonderful experiments over the last few months of mailing AirTags to different parts of the world and seeing the routes they took to reach their destination.
I rather liked his latest video, though, which explores one of those questions you might never have thought of asking in the past: what actually happens if you get on a plane and leave something in the pocket of the seat in front of you?
This is one of those ‘in case you’re Googling for it’ posts.
On the Mac, it’s pretty easy to change the default browser, the default email program, and the app that gets fired up when you double-click on a particular file type in the Finder.
But when you’re in Safari and you click on a link to an RSS Feed, what happens then?
In my case, it starts up ‘Reeder’; a fine app, but not one I currently use, having switched to News Explorer a few years back. At some point in the past, I must have registered Reeder as my default news feed app, though I can’t remember whether the app did it directly; or whether I used the facilities in earlier versions of MacOS or a third-party app to make the association.
So how could I tell Safari (and the Mac more generally) that I now wanted RSS and Atom feeds to be handled by a different app? It’s not exposed in the settings of Safari, and not available in System Preferences.
Well, there used to be a utility called RCDefaultApp, and if you search for solutions to this problem, you’ll find many references to it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in recent MacOS versions due to changes in the support for Objective-C — the language in which it was written.
All of which is background information to the fact that Gregorio Litenstein has created a handy new Preference pane that allows you to change these mappings. It’s written in the Swift language, and so is called SwiftDefaultApps.
If you have Homebrew installed, you can get it easily with
brew install --cask swiftdefaultappsprefpane
Otherwise, you can install it following instructions on the site.
It then appears at the bottom of System Preferences, and in my case:
Sure enough, when I now click on an RSS link, Safari asks if I want to open it in News Explorer, and all is well!
(Note that this is a system-wide setting, but other browsers may not use it; Firefox has its own way of setting up such apps, for example.)
Anyway, if you’re trying this, you probably want an RSS link to test it on, and you’ll find that there’s a convenient one at the top right of this page… 🙂
Today, for the first time ever, I’ve been wearing contact lenses. As a new user, I have to say, they’re a jolly impressive technology!
These are multifocal ones, which I hope may save me from the routine of putting on my reading glasses, taking them off, dropping them, picking them up, losing them, finding them, cleaning them etc, which I currently do several times an hour. We’ll see how well they work overall, but you know what was the very first benefit I noticed in the optician’s office? I could read my Apple Watch!
Such a cruel mistress is Fate, that the very moment that I was able to purchase this miracle of technology and strap it to my wrist was the same moment my eyesight deteriorated to the point where only things further away than the end of my arm could be viewed unaided. Since then, yes, I’ve been able to read big digits and press pause buttons, but most of the more detailed displays on the watch have had me reaching for my glasses, which does somewhat tarnish the high-tech coolness of it all. Sigh. Old computer-graphics geeks don’t die, they just lose their resolution.
Another problem I’d like to solve is that of seeing both my SatNav and the road. I don’t need glasses for driving. I do need them to read the dashboard. When I put them on, I can’t see the road. Ça, c’est un problême.
So is needing a spare hand for specs when I’m taking photos. I can use my camera’s viewfinder, which has a diopter correction, or the rear screen, which doesn’t. I often want to switch between these to get the best shot, but by the time I’m ready, the eagle has flown.
In a way, it would be easier if I needed to wear glasses all the time, rather then half the time. But my distance vision isn’t at all bad, and I tried varifocal glasses and they didn’t agree with me. So I hope these prove to be a success. My total contact-lens-wearing experience currently runs to about 6 hours, so it’s too early to say.
But they have at least allowed me to write this post without difficulty, and, perhaps more importantly, they have solved that problem whose critical importance for humans was first identified by Arthur Dent on a spaceship in the late seventies, and encountered by me in central Cambridge in 2015: “How am I going to operate my digital watch now?”
I had a 47-page PDF document that I wanted to turn into a compact A5 booklet – you know, one of those things where you get out the big stapler and make something like this:
Unfortunately, you need to print page 39 on the same page as page 10, and then pages 40 and 9 on the other side, etc, and when you get to anything more than about 4 pages it’s hard and tedious to do this by hand and get it right. My HP printer driver had a ‘booklet’ facility, and it worked OK for 8 pages, but let me down when given any more.
Now, there are utilities you can buy which can do exactly this, but why would I spend a tenner or two when I could instead use a few otherwise lucrative working hours and build one myself?
So here’s my solution, which could be a lot tidier, but does the only tricky bit of the job: getting the pages in the right order. It’s an Automator script which you can run as a service: once installed, you can right-click on a PDF and select Services, and you should find a ‘Make Booklet PDF’ option. It produces a new PDF on your Desktop with appropriately shuffled pages. You can then just print that using Preview as follows:
Now, please note: You should understand how this works before trying it! It’s not complex, and I could have made it much prettier and self-explanatory, but I was using Automator, which is so far from a real programming language as to be frustrating. It does, however, have a few useful ways of manipulating PDFs without having to install anything else, and my script will at least prompt you with some of the following information when you run it.
(Note too that if you’re reading this in 2022 or later, you definitely want to continue on to read the updates at the bottom of the post!)
First, the number of pages in your starting PDF must be a multiple of 4. Fortunately, you can easily append blank pages in Preview if needed. Select the last page and choose ‘Edit > Insert > Blank Page’ as often as needed and then save. The script will warn you if your page count isn’t right.
Then when you run the script, it will create a folder called ‘booklet-pages’ on your desktop. In here, it will create one PDF for each page of your document.
Finally, it will work out what order these pages should be in, and create a new ‘booklet.pdf’ on your desktop with the pages reassembled in that order.
You can then delete the ‘booklet-pages’ folder.
So, here’s a zip file containing the Automator script. You should be able to double-click it and open it in Automator if you want to see what’s inside, but I think if you put it into your
~/Library/Services folder within your home directory, it will probably just appear as a service if you right-click on a PDF file in the Finder.
Make Booklet PDF on desktop.zip (for pre-Monterey Macs)
Hope it’s useful to someone! Sorry I can’t provide any support if you try it, but recommendations and improvements are welcome from anybody with more Automator stamina than me! All I can say is that it works nicely on my Mac running High Sierra (10.13.6).
If you’re doing this kind of thing, you may also like a video of MacOS PDF tips and tricks, which I made back in 2016 but which people still say they find useful.
Update April 2022:
MacOS version 12.3 and onwards doesn’t include Python 2, on which this script depended, and, while it does include Python 3, Apple haven’t updated Automator to make the switch quite as trivial as it should be! However, I’ve created an updated version which works on my Mac; I hope somebody can confirm that it works for them too! (See below.)
Update June 2022
The new version of the ZIP file below tries harder to find a copy of Python 3 on your computer.
For MacOS 12.3 and later:
~/Library/Servicesfolder as mentioned above, and you should find it in the ‘Quick actions’ submenu if you right-click on a PDF.
Having recently come back from France, I’ve been typing a lot more characters with accents on them than I usually do! For common European accents, this is really easy to do on the Mac, but I confess that, for many years, I didn’t know the trick until a friend showed me.
So in case you’re of the anglophone persuasion and you’ve missed it too, let me enlighten you: all you have to do is hold down the appropriate key on the keyboard, and a little menu pops up; you can select the variant you want by clicking on it, or by typing the associated number.
In case you’re Googling for it, or in case I forget how to do it…
If you search online, you can can find various articles about how to take an MP3 or AAC audio file and make a .M4R-format file which an iOS device can then use as a ringtone. I’ve had a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan as mine for years, and have probably infuriated and/or amused those around me in equal measure when my phone starts announcing that I am the Captain of the Pinafore…
I lost this, though, in a recent wipe and re-install of my phone, after which I discovered that iTunes no longer makes it at all obvious how to put these custom ringtones onto your device. It’s easy if you buy them on the iTunes store, of course, but otherwise no amount of dragging and dropping would get my old favourites into iTunes or onto my phone.
But it turns out that there is still a way, and it’s documented some way down on this Apple page. As a quick summary:
This works fine for me in iTunes 12.7 – no dragging and dropping needed. You should then see your ringtones, and be able to choose them in Settings > Sounds on the iPhone.
I wrote about this a few years ago but it’s still a handy and not-very-well-known hidden feature of the Mac’s System Preferences.
NOTE that on some Macs, especially recent Mac Book Pros, this only works if you have external displays attached.
I was delighted to see, this morning, that my local supermarket, Waitrose, has effectively abolished the transaction limit on Apple Pay & Android Pay. It’s now £10,000, and even with my fondness for some of their products, it’s hard to imagine hitting that limit even on Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. So today, I paid for our weekly shop with my Apple Watch.
In fact, I pay for most things with my watch, now, when I’m out and about. (I could also use my phone, but that would be like the old-fashioned systems where you had to take something out of your pocket to make a payment.) Since I only really buy clothes about once a year, and I buy almost everything else on Amazon, there are remarkably few occasions when I need to use a physical card any more. (Cash, of course, is long gone: coins are mostly something I keep in the car as a kind of parking-meter token.) I even have an electric car, so I don’t need to buy petrol.
The only places, therefore, where I still regularly used a card + PIN instead of the more modern electronic payment systems (which have hitherto been limited to £30) were when eating out, and when grocery shopping. The latter went away this morning.
If the pubs and restaurants of Great Britain get their act together soon, my wallet will soon be completely redundant, and I will be delighted.
My latest little screencast shows some of the things you might not have discovered in the Preview app on the Mac.
Also available on Vimeo here.
Like many Mac geeks, I’m a fan of the ‘hyper’ key. “What”, you may well ask, “is that? I don’t see one of those on my keyboard.”
Well, you’re familiar with the normal modifier keys – shift, control, alt/option and command – and there are various utilities, both within the operating system and as third-party add-ons, which let you map keystrokes involving these onto particular bits of functionality. So, for example, if you have an application in which a particular menu item has no keyboard shortcut, you can assign one of your own using the Keyboard section of System Preferences.
You can set up more complicated sequences of events using something like the wonderful Keyboard Maestro utility (which, despite its name, can also trigger actions based on all sorts of other events, like starting an app when a particular USB device is plugged in, or mounting a network drive when you join a particular wifi network. However, back to the keyboard…)
If you want a keystroke that will perform a particular action regardless of which app you’re using, though, you may have more of a challenge. Here’s an example: To my surprise, one of the most useful things I’ve found in recent Apple OS updates on the Mac and iOS devices is the previously uninspiring Notes app. It now has enough formatting, searching and organisation to be really useful for odd notes and synchronises beautifully across both my Macs and all my mobile devices. I use it all the time, and I want a keystroke combination that will pop it to the front at any time. It can’t be Cmd-N, because that creates a new file in most apps. Shift-Cmd-N is used, for example, in the Finder to create a new folder. I might get away with Ctrl-N in many of my current apps, but one day soon I’ll install one which uses it and then I’ll be frustrated.
So the idea of the ‘hyper’ key is that you pick a combination of modifiers that nobody in their right mind would ever use for anything else: typically Shift-Ctrl-Alt-Cmd. And then you remap some otherwise-unused key on your keyboard to produce Shift-Ctrl-Alt-Cmd, and that becomes your ‘hyper’ key. Hyper-N fires up Notes, Hyper-C brings up your diary, Hyper-T your todo list, and so on, and they work in any application because no sane application is going to have defined Shift-Ctrl-Alt-Cmd-T as a shortcut.
In the past, the best way to do with was with a little utility called Karabiner. It had an option to use the ‘Fn’ key for this, without interfering with its normal operation when pressed with, say, the volume keys. I’ve used it for years. But at present Karabiner doesn’t work with the new Mac Os Sierra, and I find I’m missing my Hyper key terribly. There’s a lightweight utility called Karabiner Elements being developed, but it’ll currently only map one single key to another, and won’t do the more complex stuff I need for this.
So I was pleased to come across this article by someone calling themselves ‘LunarRed’ which suggests a solution: you use Karabiner Elements to map the CapsLock key to F18, and then Keyboard Maestro to map F18 plus another key to the actions you wish to invoke.
It works nicely, and with a small reprogramming of my fingers, I can pop up Notes with CapsLock-N, my To-do list with CapsLock-T, and so forth. Happy again…
Update 5 Dec 2016 – Karabiner Elements is starting to get proper ‘Hyper’ functionality built in now. At the time of writing it’s not in the official build, but I’m using a version from this thread and it works fine. I’m changing one thing, though: in the past I always used the Fn key for my hyper key, but you need an app that understands that, despite this, you probably want Fn to do its normal thing if you use it with the function keys. Karabiner did that, the new Karabiner Elements doesn’t (yet). So I’m going to switch all my machines to use Caps Lock as the Hyper key, since that has few complications, and my fingers will gradually learn the new location!
© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser