Low End Mac Reviews

Mac OS X Panther Hacks

- 2004.09.10

Computer book publisher O'Reilly is perhaps best known for a series of volumes on different programming languages, each with a different obscure animal on the cover. These tomes have become pretty much the standard references on their various subjects.

Now, the company seems to be on a mission to rehabilitate the word "hacker," rescuing it from its current connotations of a nasty loner trying to use the Internet to steal data from your computer. With an expanded output of books, including Paul Graham's musings in Hackers and Painters and former "Stand by Me" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and current blogger Wil Wheaton's biographical Just a Geek, O'Reilly hopes that we'll all see hackers as people who are curious about computers and trying to push them to their limits.

And what hackers do is play with hacks, "clever ways to get something done". For the past year or two, O'Reilly has been releasing a series of books, each containing 100 hacks promising "industrial strength tips and tools." Subjects have included Google, Amazon, digital photography, wireless, and Linux server.

And now it's the turn for Mac OS X Panther Hacks (ISBN 0-596-00718-3) by Rael Dornfest & James Duncan Davidson (US$29.95). It's clear that the authors are fans of the Mac and its latest operating system, and with this book they are hoping to empower other Mac-lovers to take their computer use one (or more) steps further.

Like other books in this series, you don't have to be a programmer or hard-core geek to be able to use at least some of the hacks. In fact, a number of them aren't really hacks but rather pointers to useful free or inexpensive online utilities. There's no CD included, but the author includes links to all the programs mentioned, along with the price. (Off-topic rant: All too often books and download sites fail to mention the price for shareware software, feeding into the misconception that if it can be freely downloaded, it shouldn't be paid for. If you continue to use a shareware product, pay for it. 'Nuff said!).

For instance, the authors review a variety of programs for running multiple desktops, ranging in price from free to $40, clearly noting the pluses and minuses of each.

But not all hacks require add-on programs. For instance, they reveal a few lines of Terminal code that makes the menu bar clock add the date. Nice. (And also nice that they show how to return to the default if desired).

Another line of Terminal code speeds up Safari page display. Twenty seconds of typing for a perkier-feeling Internet.

Some of the hacks may not be for the faint of heart. If I plug an external monitor into my iBook, the display mirrors what's on the notebook screen; on a more expensive PowerBook, an external monitor can be used to get a larger desktop spanning the two screens. Before trying out the hack promising to "enable spanning in open firmware," note the author's warning that "A mistake can prevent your machine from booting properly" and their further warning that with ATI Rage-based iBooks "the patch renders such machines dead as a proverbial doornail."

(You can check whether your iBook, iMac, or eMac can use the patch at <http://www.rutemoeller.com/mp/ibook/supportlist_e.html>.

Co-author Dornfest also wrote O'Reilly's volume, AppleScript: the Definitive Guide, so it's not surprising that some of the hacks in this book involve AppleScripting. In some cases, the code involved covers several pages. Luckily, the code for all these hacks can be found online at <http://hacks.oreilly.com/pub/ht/106>.

Relatively few of the 100 hacks require involved coding. I suspect most Panther users will find enough of these hacks valuable to justify the purchase price.

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