25 March 2010

Today, I would like to pontificate about my love for you control:tunes. This little add-on/plug-in for iTunes from you software has been around for a long time. I’m not sure how long, but I feel like I’ve been using it for years. And the cool part is, despite upgrades to the OS (we’re talking Mac only here) and to iTunes, it has always worked.

Although it can do lots of stuff, I’m not really a power user. On the other hand, I’m awfully sad when I’m without it.

Here’s what happens:

I’m working away at my desk, listening to music from iTunes. As each song starts, an unobtrusive overlay (sort of like a Growl notification) fades in to the lower left hand of my screen, telling me what the song and album is. Since the iTunes app is usually buried under heaps of other programs on my second monitor, and since I do tend to let iTunes DJ entertain me for hours at a time, or forget what record I’ve put on, or don’t know what song or album I’m listening to, or wonder what a song is called, it’s very handy to be able to consult this pop up. It’s also very easy to ignore it if I want to. I can also make it go away faster by clicking on it. And all of this is totally customizable. The size, position, color, duration, transparency or the very existence of the pop-up. It’s all in your hands.

Here’s another thing that happens:

I’m working away at my desk, blasting MC Yogi’s Elephant Power record (which has brought me untold hours of happiness this year) or some punk rock, or Fred Astaire or something when the phone rings and I see from the caller ID that it’s a client. Or the government, or some other party upon whom the benefit of answering the phone without a raucous party in the background should be bestowed. Of course, iTunes is buried under all kinds of stuff, and I’m not flight-fingered about the F8 “pause” button on the keyboard (as I tend to use those F keys as key commands in my Adobe software and don’t ever expect them to work in the Finder for some reason)… and, moreover, the phone ringing flusters me, and I’m generally busy trying to plug the earbuds of my headset in and act all cool and suave and like I don’t spend most of my days working in splendid isolation. You control: tunes comes to the rescue. There’s a very handy PAUSE button right there in my menu bar (along with, admittedly, a lot of other stuff with which I’ve cluttered it up — sorry Mac minimalists!). It’s super-easy for me to click it and stop the party asap. Phew, suaveness recovered.

You can also use that same menu bar interface to find out what you’re listening to or select something new to listen to and to do iTunes geeky things like set ratings and favorites. And you can customize this little menu thing too. It comes with a huge variety of button sets in various styles and colors — and apparently, you can also make your own. You can put them on the left or the right or not at all. Personally, I’m quite happy with the flat orange buttons on the right and have been for years. Familiarity breeds comfort.

You can also set it so that the name of the song you’re listening to scrolls by in this button area for the amount of time (and at a speed) you specify. I like that.

I’m totally sold, based on the features I’ve mentioned (especially because it’s a free app). But you can apparently also set up all kinds of hot keys to control various iTunes-y things in an even more streamlined manner. I’ve not pursued this option, as my braincells allocated to storing information of that kind are already filled up remembering that option-u is umlaut and option-x is almost equal to and what the typographic names of such things as æ, «», |, and # are. (ash, guillemets, pipe and octothorpe).

Thank you people who make good software and give it to us for free. You are very cool.

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17 February 2010

This is a pretty simple one. Well, I guess all the little apps I put on my list to write up are simple, only, once they fall into the pile of prolixity which is my mien, they may seem not so simple. But this one, really, it’s simple.

Today’s app is Free Ruler. It’s a ruler. You can get it here, for free.

How often have you been designing or coding up a website only to wonder, “how many pixels is that”? Or, how many times have you been working on something when someone, say, an art director type person in your life, asks, “Is that actual size?” and you realize you’re not really sure? Or, how many times have you been browsing the web and wondered how wide someone designed their site? How many times have you wondered just how many point that type you already turned to outlines in Illustrator is?

OK, I will admit you may have answered “zero times” to the questions above. But these were awkward situations and conundrums that once plagued me. Not so with Free Ruler trustily stowed in my dock!

You can drag it around your screen You can convert units. You can measure vertically or horizontally or both at once. You can make it more or less transparent. You can get it to tell you the exact measurement at the place you’re pointing your cursor. You can tweak it to give you accurate measurements for your actual monitor. You can lock it in place. You can get it to convert units for you. You can use keyboard shortcuts. And, it looks pleasingly like a ruler.

See, it was pretty simple. I use this thing a lot. Maybe you wouldn’t. That’s ok. I also really like metal drafting rulers with cork backs. But I can’t get those into my monitor.

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10 February 2010

This is a really old school topic. It’s so what I used to love to read in the paper version of Macworld 10 years ago. I always loved reading about the fun and productive add-ons you could could get for your Mac (and install with Font DA Mover! Remember?)

In honor of all that, I’d like to give some kudos to a few little Mac apps that make my life better. Since, apparently, I am exceedingly verbose, I will just write one up at a time, and make this an ongoing series.

Today’s gem is: MsgFiler:

This is a really simple plug-in for Apple Mail (did you know there were such things‽). It lets you use a keyboard command to file messages into mailboxes.

That may not seem that exciting to you, and if you’re a refugee from Outlook or someone who uses Mail in what I’ve been told is the “normal” way, it might not even make sense. But to me it’s huge. As far as I’m concerned, this little plug-in has single-handedly made me stop pining for Eudora (no pun intended… though that would be one geeky pun!), and that is no easy feat. I loved Eudora. Oh so much. I was such a “power user”. At some point though, after a few years of OSX, I decided my life would be simpler, less expensive and more compatible with my colleagues if I switched Mail.app.

The paradigm for most users of Eudora goes like this: all your incoming messages stay in your inbox. You click them to read them (I think there was a preview pane, but I never used it… I didn’t like having the messages be readable before I was ready like that). Once you’re done with them, and don’t want them in your inbox anymore, you hit Apple-F, for filter. With this one magic keystroke, Eudora would file all the selected messages into their permanent storage folders, however you’d chosen to set them up those folders and map characteristics of messages to them (using Filters). You could have a complex tree of clients, projects and friends, or just one big “read” folder. Whatever you wanted. Bye bye. Messages that need dealing with are in In, everything else is put away, according to sender or subject or date or whatever crazy methodology floated your boat. Oh, so neat and tidy.

But with Mail, setting up Rules makes the messages fly right into their assigned mailboxes by default when you receive them, whether you’ve read them or not. Sure, there’s a little blue dot to indicate there’s something unread in a folder, but who wants to go around reading things in all sorts of different folders and keeping track of what needs doing? I like having the things to deal with all in my inbox until I file them. I could do that, by not setting up rules that put things in mailboxes, but then I had to use my mouse to manually drag each message I was done with to its ultimate resting spot. And that was annoying, in a carpal tunnelly sorta way.

This drove me crazy about Mail for ages, until I found MsgFiler. It doesn’t work exactly like Eudora, in that you don’t set up filters ahead of time (which can be a time-consuming, and frankly endless task). Rather, you hit your chosen key-command (or Apple-Option-T to repeat your last task) and you get a list of mailboxes in which things can be filed. This works wonderfully if you throw everything, like I do these days, in one great big “read” folder and rely on searches to find old stuff*. I especially like the Apple-Option-T thing. Now I feel, properly like a Mail power user. Phew. One less thing to stress about.

MsgFiler is shareware. It costs $8 to buy, and certainly you should do that if you like it as much as me. Or half as much. It works with all those different Leopards. Get it here: http://www.tow.com/msgfiler/

* BONUS: Finding Stuff in Mail

You might be wondering how I can deal with throwing all old messages into a “Read” folder, when Mail’s find feature is somewhat notoriously wussy. Using the find field in the toolbar of Mail only allows you to input one criterion, which is usually a pretty useless way to find an email, if, for example the sender has sent you more than one, or more than one sender have sent you emails on the same topic, or, indeed, you don’t know or remember all the facts. This frustrated me for a long time. Luckily, somewhere I read this fabulous tip:

Create a Smart Mailbox (use the little + sign in the sidebar). Call it something like “Robust Searches”. Whenever you need to search on multiple criteria, edit this Smart Mailbox (right click or contol-click it and choose edit in the contextual menu). There you go. What a smart mailbox.

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25 January 2010

I am not a video game person. I enjoyed Atari Pac Man, Frogger and Jungle Hunt at a friend’s house as a wee one. I played, off and on, Zelda and Super Mario Brothers from the time my sister purchased them and a Nintendo player things sometime in the 80s until this year, when the Nintendo finally broke, but I never made significant progress. Never rescued any princesses.

Academic Considerations

While I was in Memphis for the AIGA conference last fall, I walked into the lobby of the Marriott and observed some men watching a football game on a big television. It was only much later that I realized that there was no football game, they were playing one of those newfangled 3D video games that look so alarmingly realistic. I’ve seen talks about the design of Rock Band but have never had any impulse to play it (I don’t do karaoke either — though I was a singer and guitarist in a real band for many years). Basically, I’m a flaming Luddite when it comes to the enormous, ubiquitous world of the modern video game (or is that gaming?) industry. And I’m ok with that.


I do, however, occasionally latch on to simple little games on my iPhone or desktop computer. I went through a Tetris phase, and Bejeweled, and something called Super Nisqually then Scrabulous (when it was still cool), and proper Scrabble, and Bananagrams on Facebook, then back to Bejeweled — this time, the Blitz version you play on your phone against your Facebook friends.


Each game is just a minute, so it’s low-commitment. Of course, I find it impossible to play fewer than 8 million gazillion games in a row, so the time-commitment does tend to add up. Luckily, it’s not a total waste of time. I’ve decided that playing Bejeweled Blitz on the iPhone against my Facebook friends is a wonderful experience, equivalent to a certain type of meditation, and full of hidden wisdom and lessons. Here is what I have learned:

  • To succeed, you must maintain a zen-like mono-focus. Just Bejeweled, nothing else. Be mindful only of Bejeweled.
  • Sometimes you have to look past the pretty shiny things to the bigger picture.
  • You must ignore physical urges, do not scratch your nose or brush your hair back. Push through the pain. Focus.
  • Always look ahead. Don’t wait for or watch the results of your last action, always look to your next action.
  • Use strategy, but don’t get bogged down by using strategy. Sometimes it’s better to just jump right in with what you know, take the opportunities you see before you… they could lead to something.
  • Just because something’s scary (the man’s voice, the crashing sounds) doesn’t mean you should be scared. Look at it as exciting, not scary. Be empowered.
  • Allah will provide. There are always jewels that will match somewhere on the board, even if you think there are not. Look in unusual places (i.e., around the edges, especially at the top).
  • Competition can be fun, if you don’t get too caught up in it.
  • Looking at lots of shiny jewels and thumbnail pictures of your Facebook friends right before bed might make you have some strange dreams.
  • Sometimes, you have to cut your loses and restart. You’re only wasting part of a minute to finish an unpromising game, but so what! Be selfish. Restart if you want to. Keep up the excitement level in your life.
  • You can pack a lot in a small area if you design it well. I’m perfectly happy with this user interface on my phone.
  • Aesthetics are important to the overall experience. I really really like looking at shiny sparkling jewels.
  • Somehow, in the intervening years between when I last saw them (high school) and today, my high-school friends have become preposterously skilled at Bejeweled. Although I don’t know what they’ve done with their lives (that they didn’t post on Facebook) I’ve got to respect them for that.
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