In Memoriam

The story of Steve Jobs poses a conundrum: were he a fictional character, the scale of his accomplishments would defy plausibility. Sure, he changed the way we buy and play music, before proceeding to transform what had been mere portable phones into pocket-sized connections to the networked world. Then, in what turned out to be his closing act, he created a new computer category, the tablet, whose story is still early on in its unfolding.

It’s worth remembering, though, that those are just his accomplishments of the last decade or so. The recent tour de force almost eclipses those other little things he did, like introduce the general public to the notion of the personal computer in 1976, and then to the concept of the GUI in 1984. On the Macintosh’s heels came the LaserWriter, and suddenly one could produce what looked like professional print in the comfort of one’s home. As Wired notes, the LaserWriter, like many another Apple product, wasn’t the first in its category to market. It was just the one that dazzled nearly all who crossed paths with it, and in so doing changed the game.

Somewhere in between his two rounds at Apple, Jobs spun up NeXT. Relatively few people ever had the chance to use one of the company’s sleek black boxes, or their advanced development tools, but John Carmack did when he created Doom, the game that rewrote players’ notions of the possible. Tim Berners-Lee used them to implement a system that let physicists share hypertext documents over the network, but which in short order spread to use by a non-physicist or two.

These things were not solely the work of Steve Jobs, and they would probably have happened without him. Eventually. But he was the one who saw what could be, and who, with all the unvarnished glee of an excited child, grabbed our hands to tug us into a future we hadn’t known we’d been aching for, well before we thought we’d see it.

Farewell, Steve Jobs. You will be sorely missed.

Reboot Camp

Much has been written lately about Steve Jobs’s legacy, and how he transformed not just several industries, but key aspects of our culture itself.

All of this is true, but other recent news has reminded me that he is in some ways not the only technology CEO to leave a mark on the wider culture.

Listening to a story on NPR yesterday about DC’s decision to restart all of its comic books at issue #1, after seeing a trailer the night before for the new new Spider-Man, I can’t help but think that Bill Gates has left some nontrivial marks of his own.

While Windows certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on the notion of rebooting, there’s no denying that it’s the product that introduced wide swaths of the population at large to the notion of resetting things that aren’t working.

Now if only someone could figure out the elusive special key combination for George Lucas and/or Star Wars.

Light and Dark

Lunch today with the Villainous Uncle Kridley was the usual pleasure, exhibiting as it did the customary bouncing from topic to topic. Somehow we went from a friend’s new cat to the subject of dogs to the asymmetry of the human face in just a few short steps. Eventually we reached the disturbing question of what Dick Cheney would look like were he the subject of a symmetric portrait. Surprisingly, a Google search did not immediately turn up any relevant results, though I could swear I’d seen such images before.

A quick download from Wikipedia of Cheney’s official portrait, a few minutes of work with the ever-reliable Acorn later, and voilà.

Cheney LeftCheney Right

(Since Cheney’s head is slightly tilted in the original image, I rotated it a few degrees clockwise, to make the nose vertical and glasses horizontal.)

Left Cheney looks benevolent enough, if at the same time vaguely and disturbingly reminiscent of a leaner Karl Rove. Right Cheney, however, is clearly up to no good. What’s interesting — to me, anyway — is that left is the vaguely smirky side in the regular portrait.


or: maybe more than just the soda is flat

People are speculating as to whether the third dimension actually exists. Not people with tragic neurochemical imbalances who would clearly benefit from some kind of medication, but highly respectable physicists. That’s not even the wildest bit. There’s a chance that this is actually testable, and that the test is within reach of our current level of technology. The device to carry it out is under active construction.

I’m dying to know what happens if the test returns positive. (My guess is “not much”, but you never know.)

Around the Campfire

or: it’s two in the morning. Why am I staring at the tent’s ceiling?

“What is best in life?”
“An edible homage to a classic film.”
“Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?”
“An edible homage to a classic film — with added caffeine.”
“That is good! That is good.”

Because, really, why stop with the chocolate-sugar rush of regular s’mores when you could score a hyperactivity trifecta?

Safari Extensions

or: the line between nifty and useful.

Safari 5.0.1 introduced, at long last, support for extensions. Naturally, I almost immediately downloaded a slew of the new toys to play with. In the interest of not overloading my browser with a bunch of marginally-useful gadgets, I uninstalled a good percentage of the candidate extensions after the obligatory test spin. What remains are the ones whose features I find useful on something resembling a regular basis.


This is quite possibly my single favorite extension, simply because it works so well across a wide swath of the web, and requires no special behavior on the user’s part. It detects when you’re viewing a page that’s part of a series and, as your scrolling nears the bottom of the page, automatically loads the next page and attaches it to what was previously the page bottom.

Imagine that you’re in a library reading a document written on a long scroll. AutoPagerize is like a silent but observant attendant who, as your eyes near the bottom of the unrolled scroll, discretely and unobtrusively rolls it out further. I’ve been using it for over a month now, and I still smile when I catch it in action.


Invoke Safari’s built-in View → View Source command, and you’ll be rewarded with a new window of monochromatic text. Invoke BetterSource by clicking its toolbar button, and you get a new tab of syntax-colored, line-numbered source code. If you ever need to debug a page, or are even just curious about its structure, this is the way to go.


It’s been a convention ever since the days when browsers first learned to load images — and yes, I’m old enough to remember those days, thankyouverymuch — to place those images in the upper left corner. As with many a convention, there’s no particularly compelling reason for it. It’s just what everyone else has done. CenterImages, as its name suggests, instead centers the image within the current browser window, placing it against a neutrally gray background for good measure. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I find myself wondering why browsers haven’t always done it this way. A recent update adds the ability to contrast-enhance chromatically “flat” images.


At the risk of sounding like an Apple fanboy who does whatever Steve Jobs says to, I am not a huge fan of Flash, mainly because it tends to behave as though it’s entitled to all free CPU cycles, which it bloody well isn’t. Load more than a few pages containing Flash elements into separate Safari tabs, and you’ll find Flash bogging things down even when those Flash elements aren’t actively doing anything useful.

ClickToFlash doesn’t systematically block Flash, but it does prevent Flash elements from automatically launching upon page load, instead replacing them with placeholder images. Click on those images, and the Flash is loaded. It’s a good way of staving off Flash’s limitless CPU appetite without completely forgoing the use of sites that employ Flash.

As a bonus, it’s smart enough offer the option of replacing Flash-based movies with their H.264 counterparts on sites like YouTube, yielding improved video quality and reduced CPU usage at once. In addition, it lets you categorically permit or block Flash from different domains.

Flickr Original

When you’re browsing Flickr, it normally presents you with scaled-down thumbnail versions of large images, which is only reasonable: you don’t necessarily want to download the original 4000-by-3000-pixel version of every image as you’re perusing a library. Once you do find an image you like, though, the process of getting the original is a touch tedious. Click on the image in the photostream, then click on the image in the slideshow view, then click on the “View all sizes” button in the top right, then click on the “Original” link. Feh.

Flickr Original lets you sidestep all of that. It adds two options to the context menu that appears when you right-click on an image: View Original Flickr Image and Download Original Flickr Image.

It’s hardly something I use every day, but it is certainly nice to have when I need it.


The web has put us into contact with our fellow human beings as few innovations before it have. Unfortunately, this accomplishment comes with an unpleasant realization: most of our fellow human beings are egocentric, mean-spirited, borderline-illiterate morons, or at least choose, for some inscrutable reason, to behave as such while online. (Penny Arcade noted as much years ago.)

If you find yourself vaguely annoyed every time you realize that the interesting article you’re reading only occupies the first fourth or so of the page in question, the remaining three quarters consisting of variations on “first post!!!!1!”, “u r so gay!”, trolling, and similar noise, then perhaps you, too will appreciate ShutUp. It adds a toolbar button which lets you toggle the appearance of comments with a single click. This may only be further proof that I’m a snooty, short-tempered pedant, but I find myself appreciating its handiwork.

Ultimate Status Bar

This is a very simple extension which, when you hover your pointer over a link, tells you where that link will take you. “But wait,” you say. “Isn’t that functionality already built into Safari?” Well, yes. But Ultimate Status Bar knows a few tricks Safari has yet to learn, nicely summarized on its own page. My single favorite is its ability to expand the shortened URLs popularized by Twitter and its ilk. Its way of discreetly hiding when not in use is a nice bonus.

What the extension’s page will not tell you, but which is nonetheless true, is that its developers are some of the nicest people you will ever cross paths with online. I sent them an appreciative comment a while back, and they not only replied, but commented on portions of my blog they’d clearly read. I could not help but be pleasantly shocked.

English 2.0

or: there’s more than one way to be syntactically broken.

Written English needs a new character.

No, I’m not talking about the so-called SarcMark, which part of me still wants, to this day, to believe is some kind of brilliantly absurdist in-joke. “They don’t really want the linguistically inept to flag their sarcasm, thereby missing the entire point of sarcasm, do they?”

Proof that the creators have no soul: they missed the opportunity to be clever and make it a tiny raised pentacle, hinting at its evil aspirations. This way you could not only revert to the regular asterisk when on a system that didn’t support the new character, but they could then have coined the name “sarcasterisk”, which has more of a catch to it.

As a bonus, its continued use would actually benefit readers. Over time, it would condition them to reflexively interpret any asterisk-like character at the end of a sentence as announcing, in effect, “This sentence should not be interpreted as literally meaning what it in fact appears to be saying.” Which is exactly the right reaction to encourage when it comes to end-of-sentence asterisks in advertising.

But I digress. What English needs is not the sarcasterisk, but a character to take on half the duties the period is currently overburdened with. The period ends sentences. It also indicates abbreviations. This becomes a problem when you want to end a sentence with an abbreviation, such as “etc.”, and said sentence does not end a paragraph.

Do you use two periods, one to close the abbreviation and the other to end the sentence? That’s arguably correct, but definitely not standard practice. Do you use a single period and hope that the result won’t be excessive confusion for your readers? Or do you just write “etcetera” out, thereby eliminating ambiguity but also marking yourself as the kind of nerd who writes everything out at a time when the trend seems to be shorthand at any cost?

Well, I’ve probably tipped my hand with that last bit, but for the time being I’m going with the third option when I can. All the same, I still say we could use a distinct abbreviation character. This way the New York Times’ archaic practice of punctuating acronyms might become marginally less frustrating for the reader, at least when those acronyms occur at the ends of sentences.

I’m off to dial the language police.

(Yes, I said “dial”. The language police can only be reached by old-fashioned analog landline. Also, tripping their emergency alarm in their headquarters requires working a huge blade switch that takes up half a wall. Because that’s how they roll.)

While I’m on hold, you might want to check out Wikipedia’s entry for the “full stop“. As with most Wikipedia pieces, it manages to relate history while at the same time pointing out implications you hadn’t even gotten around to thinking of yet. (For instance, it turns out there’s actually a term for using one instance of a character when strict syntax would demand that you use two: haplography.)


Mac CLI Hacks

or: Just for the shell of it

These are probably not of any interest unless you’re the odd sort of mutant who is simultaneously a Mac fan yet relishes the power of the Bourne shell and its relatives. But since I am, and have a number of friends with similar tendencies, I thought I’d share.

First off, I have an external CD/DVD drive for ripping media, just because it tends to be both faster and less finicky than the MacBook Pro’s internal drive. Unlike the built-in slot-loading drive, it has a tray, and some combination of its design and the way it’s sitting on my desk is such that when the tray is open, the button is pretty much impossible to reach. So while it’s easy to open the closed drive, it’s not quite so easy to close it when open, regardless of whether or not it has a disc in the tray.

Yes, I know I could just shove the tray shut. But doing so’s always made me feel vaguely Neanderthal. I also know that It’s possible to use the built-in Disk Utility to this end, and that’s what I’ve done in the past. However, that means firing up Disk Utility, waiting a second or two while it surveys the attached-volume landscape, selecting the volume of interest from the list, and finally clicking the close button. A few more steps than I’d like.

Fortunately, as with most minor annoyances, I’m not the first one to encounter it. One David Morse came up with a solution to more-or-less the same problem. However, his solution actually involves more work, and is more configuration-specific, than necessary. The current version of drutil supports “Drive Selection Criteria”, meaning that if your target drive has a unique contribution of attributes, you can select it without having to obtain and then grep a device-list first. In my case, the drive I care about is the only external CD/DVD drive, so specifying “external” suffices.

function close () {
    drutil -drive external tray close

Still on my personal To-Do list: find a way to make this work within OnMyCommand, so that I can invoke it from within the Finder itself. Still, for now the one-liner is good enough.

Moving on, the Mac OS Finder lets you toggle the visibility of a file’s extension in various ways. (Cleverly, as is typical — if you try to rename a file within the Finder so as to remove its extension, the Finder simply hides the extension instead, so as to refrain from needlessly altering the system’s understanding of the file’s type.)

You can of course also toggle extension visibility using the Get Info/Show Inspector Options. Even so, there are times when you want to tweak the extension-visibility of a slew of items at once, and selecting the set from the Finder under such circumstances can be more than a bit exasperating. Fortunately, there’s a command-line tool that lets you manipulate a file’s extension-visibility, among other things: SetFile. This leads to two functions, one to hide an extension, the other to show it:

function hidex () {
    SetFile -a E "$@"
function showex () {
    SetFile -a e "$@"

("$@", complete with quotes, is your friend. Really. Failure to use it, particularly when attempting to manipulate files which have spaces in their names, is known to the State of California to cause cancer and reproductive harm.)