Archive for Productivity/Tools

New great Features in iStocks 0.3.0

iStocks MiniI have been busy with enhancing the iStocks dashboard widget. Thanks a lot for your valuable input; most new features were taken from your comments. The new 0.3.0 release has features such as Sorting by performance, Multiple instance support and color themes. It is also possible to rename the symbols and reorder them. And last but not least, the chart fetching has become much more robust by using several fallback data sources.
Check it out at iStocks Widget.

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iStocks Dashboard Widget ready for Leopard

iStocks MiniMy upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard has been successful without any glitches. I had even spare time to update my iStocks Widget to v2.0. It is now ready for Leopard but works also in 10.4. It has some new features based on the feedback, including support for stocks, futures, mutual funds, indices and currencies like “EUR=X”. It has an integrated symbol lookup facility and ships multilingual. Check it out.

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iStocks Dashboard Widget: International Stock Quotes

Tracking stocks can be fun on the Mac, thanks to the Dashboard. However, my home stock market is Germany and Apple’s Stocks dashboard widget, which comes with Mac OS X 10.4, only displays quotes and charts of US stocks. (Actually it’s a limitation of Apple’s quote server and not of the code.) There are 2200 registered widgets available currently, with some dozens of them related to international stock markets. It’s sad, but none of these widgets were as nice or useful for me as Apple’s.

iStocks MiniSo, with a little time to spare today, I’ve completed a small hack which I had on my Todo list for quite a long time. iStocks Widget is a modification (aka patch or clone) of the original Stocks widget which pulls its stock information from the international Yahoo quotes servers. So basically, you can track any stock as long as there’s a corresponding Yahoo symbol. The symbols usually carry information about the stock exchange location, like “SIE.DE” is Siemens, XETRA, Germany.

I’ve put the release at 0.1, since I’m not quite sure if the Yahoo URLs are stable. I’ve tested it against some random stocks (which all worked fine). BTW, you will notice that the intraday and weekly charts are images from Yahoo (they are not rendered via Quartz as the rest). The problem here is that 15-minute and hourly quotes are not available yet for international stocks. I think Yahoo is about to provide them when its new Yahoo Finance Charts will be announced officially.

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Drag your Drawers with Afloat

Drag your Drawers with AfloatAfloat is a Cocoa plug-in that allows your windows to float above all others (thus the name), make them transparent, and move them without having to go search for the title bar. This last feature is what I use the most. And I was quite amazed when I realized that I can detach and move the drawers of Cocoa windows as well. Watch the screencast for an illustration. That’s quite a useful thing since I can place them now like regular tool palettes.

When checking out Afloat, make sure you fully utilize its key/mouse bindings. While pressing Cmd-Ctrl use the mouse wheel to increase/decrease transparency, or move the mouse to drag the window.

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Producing Screencastings on the Mac. The cheap Way.

After having read the great article “A Review of Video Screen Capture Software for Mac OS X”, I have finally selected iShowU as my tool of choice for recording my screencastings under Mac OS X. (I tried Snapz Pro X, but it’s not a Universal binary…)

iShowU is a nice tool with a focus strictly on recording. But what about enhancing the movie? Well, of course there are add-ons like OmniDazzle, Mouseposé and others that you can use during recording. These effects really show off. But I mean something for a quick post-editing, like voice-over and text boxes or bubbles.

Enhancing Screencasting It turned out that all tools I was longing for were already installed on my Mac, but I just haven’t been aware. First of all, GarageBand is great for adding voice-over, sound effects and background music. Put each of them into a separate track, adjust volumes, add effects (I like my voice a little deeper…). A perfect, very capable tool, easy too use. 100% Mac-like. And then Quicktime, well, the Pro edition. It has some features that make it a perfect match: text tracks and image tracks with a multitude of options, like transparency, effects and positions. The multi-track editor of Quicktime Pro is not so intuitive, but quite capable. It supports export to mp4, which produces perfect and small movies. For more fancy formats, like Flash (FLV), ffmpegX is the free tool of choice. See the posting “Flash Movie Conversion for Mac OS X” and “How to encode FLV” for an elaborate discussion.

I’ve uploaded my first Screencast to Youtube.com. It shows Quicktime Pro and how to enhance a screencast by adding text tracks and nice speech bubbles (really image tracks with a bubble exported from OmniGraffle; again, shipped with your Mac).

Quicktime Alternatives?

The alternatives to Quicktime Pro would be iMovie HD and Final Cut. Well, iMovie HD is targeted for editing DV material; one show stopper for me was the lack of support for custom dimensions, like 200 x 100. This is also true for Final Cut Express. The next issue with iMovie HD was the inferior export quality. As a result, this leaves only Final Cut Pro as a valid alternative, but it’s way too expensive for me.

Optimal Settings for Exporting Quicktime to Youtube.com

Quicktime Export to YoutubeWhen publishing videos from Quicktime (i.e. .mov files) to Youtube.com, I had to tune the export settings. I’ve taken screenshots of the optimal settings (Photo set on Flickr.com). Without these, my uploaded videos always had some nasty artefacts caused by Youtube’s automatic conversion. (BTW, Youtube can digest a lot of video formats; it always converts them to mp4, NTSC/4, 320×240, 15fps with audio as MP3 at 22050 kHz. The video format is FLV.) But why export at all, and not just upload the .mov file? My .mov files had seperate tracks, which is fine usually, but Youtube only recognizes some of them; specifically it drops text and image tracks, and also video/sound tracks that are positioned at a specific starting time. I can collapse all tracks to just one audio and one video track by exporting to, for example, MP4.

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How to Remove a PDF Signature (that disallows any document changes)

PDF documents may be secured by an initial signature/certificate for disallowing any changes. This is not to be confused with “password security” or “certificate security”.

I am speaking of the kind of restrictions you will get with “Menu>File>Save as Certified Document” and then selecting “Disallow any changes to the document” (which also implies “Lock the certifying signature so that it can’t be cleared or deleted by anyone”).

This action produces a document which you cannot modify (e.g. add bookmarks or comments), and you also cannot remove the restricting signature. No PDF password remover will help you here, since there is no password!

But I found out that you can do – quite simply – disable the restrictions and render the signature removable, i.e. after these changes, you can manually delete it with Adobe Acrobat Professional:

With the Perl scripting language, this hack is applied with the following script

# Usage: perl invalidate-signing-certs.pl <in.pdf >out.pdf
binmode(STDIN);
binmode(STDOUT);
$/ = "\0";
while(<>) {
  s#(/Perms<</DocMDP.*?>>)#' ' x length $1#ge;
  s#(/Ff 1)(?=.*?/Lock )#' ' x length $1#ge;
  s#(?<=/Lock)(.*?)(/Ff 1)#"$1" . ' ' x length $2#ge;
  s#(/Lock .*?)(?=/)#' ' x length $1#ge;
  print $_;
}

The next time you open the modified document with Acrobat you will still see the signature field. Just click on it with your right mouse button and from the menu popup select “Clear Signature Field”, then “Delete Signature Field”. Now safe it and everything is fine – no more restrictions. (Tip: Use “Save as” to clean up the document of any hidden signature objects.)

Note: Always make a backup of your PDF document before modifying it, since sometimes the hacks just don’t work and you end up with a document that Acrobat cannot repair.

Update August 2006: The procedure of unsigning is now available as a video (AVI, 2,4 mb). Or watch it at Youtube.com. It shows how to unsign a ebook (in PDF 1.6 format) with the batch script using Acrobat 7.0.

Update October 2006: I’ve updated the example code. The earlier version had problems due to platform-dependent handling of line endings. The current script version operates in binary mode and is tested under Window (ActiveState and Cygwin) and Mac OS X.

Download

The archive pdf-scripts.zip contains the script shown above, and some other useful scipts:

  • invalidate-signing-certs.pl: Invalidates all Signing Certificates, thus removing any restrictions imposed by them.
  • bookmarks-fitpage.pl: Change Bookmark display style to “Fit Page”.
  • bookmarks-close.pl: Close opened Bookmark Folders.
  • bookmarks-close-1.5.pl: Close opened Bookmark Folders (for documents in PDF version 1.0-1.5, i.e. Acrobat up to 6.x)

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A look at Web Browsers and File Managers

A good Web Browser and File Manager can save you a lot of time. Today, I evaluated new programs for Windows in order to get a little bit more efficient.

Web Browsers

I have dumped Internet Explorer (IE) the moment I installed Windows XP. Its user interface is really out-dated, so no more comments on this. The rendering engine, however, seems really fast, although from the view of a Web developer I nightmare to support.

My all-time favorite is the commercial NetCaptor (v7.5.1). It has the IE engine under the hood but provides very useful features, such as tabbed browsing, bookmark groups (called CaptorGroups), mouse gestures, URL aliases (e.g. “g” for google search; the search terms are inserted into the URL through the “%s” parameter in the alias definition). OK, this is now also all available in some other browsers (Opera, but not Mozilla and Firefox). But still, NetCaptor has it all simply done right – just the way I like it. And it has a lot of small, useful features everywhere you look. For example, you can

  • move tabs to other positions
  • have tabs in multiple lines
  • close them by double clicking
  • have them opened next to the current tab
  • activate/deactive JavaScript and ActiveX with one mouse click etc.

Next comes Mozilla 1.7. I actually used only the mail client for IMAP. (I have dumped my beloved TheBat! a year ago since it didn’t support IMAP nicely then; now it does, but too late for me.) Compared with NetCaptor, Mozilla felt heavy-weight and missed a lot of my beloved features out-of-the-box. Thus in daily use I only start the web browser to verify sites I developed.

Two weeks ago I also dumped the Mozilla mail client and switched to Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s actually nearly the same, but differs in some details. (Tip: You can also copy your Mozilla profile, see the Mozilla FAQ.) But most importantly, it does not have the annoying bug I found in Mozilla mail: nested IMAP folders (2+ levels) are not displayed. Thunderbird loads quickly and is really nice and slick. One feature I miss, though, (and what TheBat! always had) is to minimize it into the desktop tray. Another missing one is support for multiple signatures (e.g. depending on recipient properties), or even better, parameterized mail templates.

Mozilla Firefox 0.9 was released lately, so I gave it a try. Is it better than NetCaptor? Well, feature-wise they both are nearly equal, but I had to install and configure a lot of Extensions:

Additionally, the “Web Developer” extension is a must-have for all, well, Web developers. I also installed a new theme “Noia 2.0 (eXtreme)” and dumped the boring standard theme. But still, Firefox takes a little more time to start, and the Web search is simply not as good, since you have to select the engine manually. Compare this to NetCaptor (and Opera etc): here you simply type e.g. “g mozilla” in the location bar and voila. Another thing I don’t like is the slow speed of mouse wheel motion (press middle button and move up- or downwards). It takes seconds to get to the top or bottom. (I have searched but it seems there is no possibility to jump there by mouse gesture.)

I also installed Opera 7.5.1. It’s really good looking, has a great user interface and is very slick. I think it is actually equal to NetCaptor, out-of-the-box (ignoring additional tools like the download manager). Being equal I think I’ll stick to NetCaptor for a while and gradually move over to Opera. (One sidenote: the IMAP client in Opera is bad and misses a lot of features that Thunderbird/Mozilla etc had for years, so again, I would use only part of the software.)

File Managers

Windows Explorer is what I used before. It’s OK, sometimes I wished for a better navigation, mouse gestures etc. So, yesterday I installed and tried a lot of the alternatives (free and commercial) including all *Commander (* = EF, AB, Speed, Total), ExplorerPlus etc.

The result: I’ll stick to Windows Explorer. The reason? All of the alternatives are either simply bloated, offer a stupid and fixed two-window layout, have no “undo” for file operations (whow, how can this be ignored?), are high-priced or crash here and then. Two explorer alternatives were really nice and I’ll watch their future development:

  • FileAnt is a minimalistic explorer. What is really nice is that you can have two folder views side by side with each side having as many tabs as you like (as in in tabbed browsing, but folders instead of pages). The third column is the desktop hierarchy. FileAnt has a minimal editor and multimedia preview. And also offers fast navigations through several means (right click, click in blank area etc.) But… it’s shareware, has no “undo” for file operations and a very annoying bug: playing a movie with the buildin player can only be stopped by quitting FileAnt!
     
  • xplorer2 is also very slick, and very powerful w.r.t. to file operations, selections and searching. The downside is the price of $19 for the pro edition. I would buy it if it would offer an “undo” for file operations.

I really don’t understand why “undo” is missing in nearly every explorer product. This is a lot more useful than a preview or a rename tool!!!!!

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