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macOS 10.14 Mojave status

macOS 10.14 Mojave is scheduled to be released on September 24.

Status for my apps/command-line tools:

Pester: Version 1.1b24 was released on September 24 with full Mojave support.

Shroud: No known issues, though I have some bug fixes that should eventually warrant a release. Dark Mode support should be trivial.

Hermes: I don’t officially support this app any more, but nobody else has taken it over either. Aside from the recent connection problems (now only for Pandora One users) due to Pandora not updating their certificates, there are no known issues. I hope to eventually migrate the non-streaming networking code but I have other impending deadlines which will seriously affect my free time. Please see this issue for a workaround if you are experiencing connection problems. Hermes is going to take the most work to support Dark Mode, because drawers have no Dark Mode appearance. This means the UI needs to be revamped to remove them, probably replacing them with history and station list popovers. Contributions are highly welcomed. I’m happy to share my thoughts about future UI directions if desired.

LaunchBar actions: I recently updated LBOfficeMRU to fix some incompatibilities with Office 16; otherwise, no known issues aside from some visual problems with LaunchBar that aren’t my problem to fix.

NewsBlur Open in New Tab: Not supported in Safari 12. Its replacement, NewsBlur Helper, is in beta.

launch: Needs some updates for APFS, but otherwise functional.

appswitch: No known issues, but I have an unreleased update which filters XPC services by default. Build from source if you would like.

brightness: Less and less functional given Apple’s auto-brightness doesn’t play well with it, but no new issues in Mojave.

soundsource: No known issues.

A list of macOS, tvOS and iOS bugs I encountered while helping my family over the holidays

These are just functionality/correctness bugs. If I covered UI bugs, I’d miss my flight home.

macOS 10.13 High Sierra

  • The installer nukes user accounts that have been around for years to replace them with new user accounts without warning (in this case, _assetcache replaced the intermapper user).
  • Users (with >500 UIDs) can “disappear” until reboot; e.g. id returns nothing for the user.
  • Domain name resolution (for a device on a local subnet, with one nameserver configured) fails until I use the increasingly-baroque and undocumented method of clearing the DNS cache, or reboot, of course.
  • Changes to file sharing are a mess.
    • Neither SMB or AFP came up cleanly the first time, requiring I toggle them off and back on from System Preferences.
    • There is no UI to indicate that sharing via AFP does not work at all on APFS.
    • Finder ignores the username you pass in a SMB sharing URL (e.g. smb://username@host/….).
    • SMB — the only documented option on APFS which provides reasonable security, unless I want to set up Kerberized NFS — is horrendously unreliable. When stressed, it either produces a massive number of errors, requiring I try a particular copying process 4 times before it completes successfully, or just deadlocks client processes entirely. In the latter case, you can’t even cd into the share without the shell hanging; GUI apps beachball and if you try to kill them, get stuck exiting (the STAT column in ps reads ?E).
  • I tried moving from iPhoto to Photos. Since I can’t copy files across the network to synchronize photos with other family members (an incredibly common workflow which Apple still hasn’t supported in any way), I tried using iCloud Photo Sharing for the purpose. This does downsample both photos and videos, but short of Thunderbolt Target Mode or NFS, I couldn’t see another way to do this aside from copying the entire photo library from one computer to another before trying to copy across individual photos.
    • Copying photos to shared albums sometimes just fails (it’s all or nothing), without any detail in the error message indicating which of the hundreds to thousands of photos you may have selected caused the problem.
    • Notifications generated during population of a shared album include a number of photos which often doesn’t match reality. I think it’s cumulative, so if you delete photos, the number can be greater than the total number of photos in the album.
    • When selecting photos in a shared album, sometimes Select All doesn’t select all the photos.
    • When selecting photos in a shared album and right-clicking on them to open a contextual menu, sometimes some of the photos get deselected and you have to try again.
    • Even after the shared album has theoretically synchronized, the number of photos displayed across multiple Macs can differ. In one case, there were hundreds of photos displayed on one Mac and zero on the other.

tvOS 11

  • Search — one of the marquee features of the device — broke one day. The Search app displays a spinner forever, and voice search claims that Up Next is somehow misbehaving. Restarting does nothing. Logging into and out of various accounts does nothing. Reinstalling the Apple TV helped for a while, but the problem came back.
  • Moving apps on the home screen is horrendously buggy. The OS will get confused about which app is which; sometimes there will be no way to launch an app except by voice because it “loses” an app; sometimes it’ll leave “holes” in the layout where an app should be. Restarting was the only remedy I could find.
  • Trying to view the Bloomberg app in the App Store caused it to hang repeatedly, requiring a restart. (I could view other apps in the App Store after force quitting it, prior to restart.)

iOS 11

  • The iPad Dock included a “stuck” partially animated app icon (same as the one next to it).
  • The number of unread items in the unified Inbox in Mail didn’t appear correctly.

The comparative length and severity of bugs on the above lists speaks for itself.

SGI screen fonts converted for OS X

The first Unix machines I sat at on a daily basis were the SGI Indys in the Berry Patch. IRIX’s proportional system font was Adobe Helvetica Oblique, which was nice; but its monospaced font was unique and home-grown, simply called screen. Here are a couple of screenshots I took in that environment nearly 20 years ago.

Screen remains the most readable monospaced bitmapped font I've ever used. It’s available in regular and bold weights, and a wide range of sizes: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 18 point. While I mostly use it in the 11 point size, the smaller sizes are terrific for fitting a bunch of log output in the corner of your screen.

After switching my desktop from Mac OS/Linux to Mac OS X in 2001, I initially used Monaco in both aliased and antialiased variants, but missed screen. I continued using screen in X11, running applications on the SGI O2 I then had on my desk, displaying remotely on my Power Mac G4.

In 2003 I used PfaEdit, now FontForge, to convert screen to a TrueType font so it’d work on OS X, and I have used it as my standard bitmapped font since. I would have made the conversions public earlier, but I was concerned about whether this would be a licensing violation. It turns out the SGI fonts were released under a MIT license a few months after I initially converted them back in 2003, but I didn’t notice until today. So, here are the fonts for you to download:

You may notice that these fonts look awful — with inconsistent horizontal and sometimes vertical spacing, even clipping — whenever you try to use them. Recent versions of OS X have been less kind to bitmapped fonts; here are some tips.

In Terminal, you can compensate for the font being squashed horizontally by adjusting the Character Spacing:

Screen character spacing

The result:

Terminal screen

In the Emacs Mac port, you can disable antialiasing and ensure screen font metrics are used on a per-font basis. Here’s how I use Screen 11 if it’s installed, otherwise Menlo 12.

(cond ((eq window-system 'mac)
       (cond ((x-list-fonts "Screen")
	      (create-fontset-from-ascii-font "Screen-11" nil "mac")
	      (set-fontset-font "fontset-mac" 'latin
				"Screen-11:antialias=off:destination=1"))
	     (t
	      (create-fontset-from-ascii-font "Menlo-12" nil "mac")
	      (set-fontset-font "fontset-mac" 'latin
				"Menlo-12")))
       (setq default-frame-alist '((font . "fontset-mac")
				   (width . 80) (height . 80)
				   (background-color . "ghostwhite")))
       (setq-default line-spacing 1) ; extra spacing
[...]

What you get:

Emacs screen

In 2008 I built a demo app to demonstrate the various issues OS X had rendering this font, but I never actually filed any bugs. As long as I’m sharing the fonts I might as well share the app (source, binary). It uses a boatload of deprecated/removed API like QuickDraw and ATSUI, mostly to demonstrate how newer font APIs, such as the then-new CoreText, are worse at displaying bitmapped fonts than their older counterparts. You can click the checkboxes at right to see options you can use with the various APIs to try to fix the spacing:

Text app

Most Cocoa apps used to display the font without difficulty, but this changed in OS X 10.8 and later, which no longer perform screen font substitution by default. You can fix the font’s display by forcing the old behavior with NSFontDefaultScreenFontSubstitutionEnabled or NSLayoutManager.usesScreenFonts (which is deprecated in 10.11). These are discussed in the AppKit release notes (there’s no direct link but if you scroll up a little from the linked section you'll see it).

Bitmapped fonts are much less useful on a Retina display. A 5K iMac or equivalent is likely in my future when I replace my Mac mini, but not for a year or two as I just bought its current display this year. In any case, I may be posting this just as it’s about to become obsolete. Better late than never?

Dictation buffer updates

It’s been a little over a year since I started using Dragon Medical in Windows as a dictation buffer for my Mac. Please see my previous few posts on the subject for some background.

Since then, I’ve eliminated pain points and added features which have made the dictation experience smoother and less infuriating.  Once again, while this does not represent a turnkey system, in keeping with the DIY nature of such projects, hopefully it may help others out who want to do something similar.  The code remains up to date on GitHub and I plan on maintaining it for my own use until something better comes along.

So, here’s a change log in approximate chronological order:

Better microphone status

As you may recall, I find the DragonBar distracting in its various forms and keep it hidden most of the time. One thing that does need to be visible, however, is the microphone status. I had originally used Growl to display notifications when the microphone was turned on and off, but I have since set up a combination of Python and AutoHotKey which monitors the Dragon microphone status and displays an overlay window on the Windows side when both Word is in front and the microphone is disabled.  (While AutoHotKey is a complete mess, it reminds me a lot of OneClick on classic Mac OS; I do wish something like it were still available for persistent script UIs on the Mac).

Here’s how it looks in practice:

Dragon Not Listening

An even more minimal dictation surface

With some more Word macro work, I’m able to use Word’s full-screen mode rather than auto-hiding the ribbon. Now the only vestige of an operating system and full-featured word processor behind my dictation buffer is a vertical scrollbar (which I could disable if I really wanted) and a couple of pixels at the bottom of the screen where the autohidden taskbar lives.  For Word’s full UI back, just press Esc; for a return to minimalism, I’ve added “Full Screen” to Word’s Quick Access Toolbar where it’s accessible via Alt+1.

Working with Citrix Viewer

While dictating into native Mac apps is great, most of the work I do these days is in our electronic medical record, which is accessible either via Citrix Viewer or VMware Horizon. One advantage of Citrix Viewer is that it presents the remote application as individually movable windows. There is still an underlying Windows desktop so many of the same issues exist as in similar solutions such as VMware’s Unity (of course Citrix long predates Unity), but overall it is usable. Since getting a larger (2560×1440) monitor at home, when dictating into the EMR I typically configure my desktop with three side-by-side windows: the main EMR window, my current note and the dictation buffer.  Previously I had an older 1680×1050 display and used my iPad for the dictation buffer, but more about that later.

The next problem is getting text from the dictation buffer into Citrix Viewer. Service support would be great, but there isn’t any, so instead I just use the existing clipboard bridging functionality and synthesize Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V.  Pasting into Citrix Viewer is the easy part; copying into the buffer is harder because the Mac clipboard doesn’t immediately update with the Windows clipboard contents.  I just have to poll the clipboard until something happens — ugly but effective.

Citrix Viewer

You may wonder why I go to all this trouble when I’m ultimately dictating into a native Windows app with Windows dictation software. The short answer is that the app and dictation software can’t run on the same computer. As has been the case in several hospitals in which I have worked, our fat-client EMR doesn’t actually get installed directly onto individual client devices either inside the hospital or out, so a local copy of Dragon needs to understand how to get through to the application running on the remote host. Prior versions of Dragon Medical and Citrix would work directly with one another, but this is no longer supported. The currently supported method for dictating into Citrix is vSync, which involves an agent on the Citrix server that talks to the Dragon client. Unfortunately, vSync isn’t supported with non-networked versions of Dragon Medical (such as the one I own). Even with vSync, things aren’t perfect — after our recent Dragon and EMR upgrades, text I’m dictating often fails to display at all until I use the mouse or keyboard to update the screen.

Dictating into Fantastical

My fellow residents and I receive some scheduling information every month in a Word document. It’s nice to look at but not too useful in practice. It’s faster to dictate this information into Fantastical in order to convert it into calendar entries than to try to reformat it manually.

But now I can easily dictate into Fantastical's natural language parser, I’ve found it useful day-to-day as a simple version of Siri for the Mac.  With an AppleScript you can tell Fantastical to parse sentence, and it'll open the Fantastical window with your dictation pre-populated.

Using RDP rather than the VMware Fusion console

While overall I really love VMware Fusion and appreciate its continued development and refinement, there are a few issues which have made it frustrating to use for this project.

First, there’s a substantial delay associated with relaying audio to the virtual machine, which notably slows dictation response. On my MacBook Pro I map my USB headset's dongle directly to the virtual machine to eliminate this delay; on my Mac mini I can't do this because I like to use the headset for Mac stuff such as listening to music at the same time. The current preview version of VMware Fusion claims to have improved audio for conferencing purposes, which I assumed would address this latency, but unfortunately I don’t notice a difference.

Second, the VMware Fusion window can sometimes lag and hang during dictation. (I'm not using Unity mode, as full-screen Word in Unity would consume the entire host entire Mac screen.) I don't understand why it's happening, but I stumbled on a workaround while getting the dictation buffer onto my iPad. I had originally used VMware Fusion's VNC support to do this, I eventually realized I could use RDP instead. With Jump Desktop on both Mac and iOS, Word became more responsive than it ever was on the console. So I now launch the VM headless and connect to it via RDP; audio, either via the VMware audio driver or USB redirection, remains independent of where the desktop displays. This has further advantages including letting me configure multiple RDP settings for varying desktop sizes (smaller or larger to fit with host applications, or big for development), rather than having to resize the VMware Fusion window, as well as letting me quit Jump Desktop and pause the VM to save battery power on my MacBook Pro when I'm not dictating. I have not tried using RDP’s own support for audio recording redirection, which Jump Desktop doesn’t support. (My scripts will still work with VMware Fusion directly if Jump Desktop isn’t running, however.)

Supporting rich text

Until a few weeks ago, input and output with the dictation buffer was limited to plain text. However, VMware Fusion, Jump Desktop and Citrix Viewer all support bridging an RTF clipboard between Windows and the Mac. So, I’ve added bidirectional RTF support to the dictation server, Mac services and command line tools. This involves using the Windows clipboard as there's no way via COM to extract RTF (or anything but text or XML) from Word on Windows. Right now, I only return either RTF or plain text, not both, based on whether you have styled your Word document at all; primarily this is so that all your Mac apps don't end up with unwanted 11 point Calibri text. Figuring out whether a Word document is styled was actually quite difficult (doing something logical like enumerating style runs doesn't work, because each paragraph gets its own run), and I end up doing it by rudimentary parsing of the document's XML looking for character and paragraph styles. pbpaste -Prefer rtf is broken at least in 10.10, so I also implement some direct Mac clipboard setting support for RTF only.

Another video

I’m working on another video to demonstrate these changes; I’ll re-record it when I get a chance.

Plans for the future

In no particular order, some further improvements I’ve been pondering...

  1. I often end up with a number of auto-recovered documents which I wish would go away. I try to close my temporary dictation documents without saving, however I do want to preserve their contents in a crash, so I may consider enumerating these documents on Word launch and deleting those which contain no text — assuming I can do this from the COM interface.
  2. Word’s full-screen mode sometimes doesn’t measure the screen correctly with an auto-hiding taskbar, so you end up with a taskbar-sized strip of desktop background at the bottom of the screen.  This appears somewhat related to the way in which I try to launch Word via COM; Windows is far more aggressive about preventing focus stealing than I realized — certainly more than the Mac — to the point that even when acting as a pseudo-user in automating the user interface, it Can be difficult to give a newly opened window focus, and the taskbar ends up staying focused. In any case, it should be easy enough to detect when Word’s window is the wrong size instead of just fixing the problem manually (move pointer out of taskbar area if necessary, then press Esc and Alt+1) when it happens.
  3. I’d like to be able to use VMware Horizon; while it’d mean some wasted screen space with non-floating EMR windows, it opens up a unique possibility. VMware Horizon supports multiple protocols — PCoIP and RDP.  While the PCoIP client is built into Horizon Client on the Mac, it will launch Microsoft’s now-obsolete Remote Desktop Connection app, if present, to connect via RDP.  RDP supports virtual channels; much like what Citrix uses for vSync, except that since I can run arbitrary Windows apps on the virtual machine rather than just the EMR-in-a-bubble as with Citrix, I could directly manipulate the Windows clipboard on the remote machine.  I’d need to write an app to impersonate Remote Desktop Connection which converted its settings files into Jump Desktop ones, a virtual channel plugin for Jump Desktop for Mac and the virtual channel server on Windows.  If successful, this would both avoid polluting the Mac clipboard and make the whole process more reliable and controllable than its Citrix equivalent. But my current setup has become a lot more reliable recently, so it may be way too much work for too little benefit.
  4. Speaking of reliability, I want to eliminate my reliance on NatLink. It's big, old, crufty and sometimes hangs when I try to connect to it (though much less frequently since I don’t do so as often), forces my server to be single-threaded, and if I could figure out how to interface directly with the Dragon microphone objects directly from Python or even my own C++ code, I could get rid of it completely. I also suspect some of the random-appearing hangs I'm seeing while dictating are NatLink’s fault, too, as they don’t happen when using Dragon at work.

On the other hand, my open source Mac apps need to be updated for El Capitan…

soundsource: a few examples

A few weeks ago, I added links to some of my smaller OS X projects to my software page. One of these projects is a command line version of Rogue Amoeba’s now-discontinued SoundSource.

This tool, which I have rather unimaginatively named soundsource, is the basis for a number of scripts I have written. I recently enhanced some of the scripts and figured I might as well post them here as inspiration for others who are drowning in a sea of audio input and output devices connected to their Macs. I run these scripts from FastScripts with corresponding keyboard equivalents:

One script handles the various headphones I use. Macs of the last few years support the same microphones and remotes as Apple’s iOS devices, and the generally decent quality of the microphones on many iOS compatible headsets is even adequate for dictation in a quiet room. I’m dictating this blog post, for example, with a Bose QuietComfort 20i headset. The accuracy isn’t quite that of my usual setup, but it is entirely sufficient for short-term usage, and it sure is nice to only have one thin cable plugged into my Mac.

Sometimes, however, I just have regular headphones plugged into the jack, and in this case there is no corresponding microphone input. Apple’s recent Macs also do a great job of dynamically changing the available audio input and output sources advertised to the OS as you connect and disconnect devices.

And in yet other cases, I use a USB headset. In any event, I want a way to “just start playing (and recording, if possible) through my headphones”. Here it is, using Growl to display the results:

#!/bin/sh

notify() {
	/bin/echo -n "Input: $(/usr/local/bin/soundsource -i)" |
		/usr/local/bin/growlnotify \
			-I /System/Library/PreferencePanes/Sound.prefPane \
			-d net.sabi.soundsource $1
}

# succeeds if headphones connected to jack
if /usr/local/bin/soundsource -o 'Headphones'; then
	# succeeds if headphones have integrated microphone
	/usr/local/bin/soundsource -i 'External microphone' || /usr/bin/true
	notify Headphones
else
	/usr/local/bin/soundsource -o 'C-Media USB Headphone Set'
	/usr/local/bin/soundsource -i 'C-Media USB Headphone Set'
	notify 'Plantronics Headset'
fi

The notification looks like this:

growl notification
Note that I take advantage of soundsource exiting with failure if it is unable to switch to the desired audio input or output device.

The second script handles changing the output to my AirPort Express, Furrball. Unfortunately, my home Internet connection is currently via my landlord’s somewhat unreliable Wi-Fi, and the AirPort Express drops off the network with depressing regularity. FastScripts does a great job of displaying status when the script fails, but because of the frequency of this failure, I recover from it by power cycling the AirPort Express. Note that, at least in OS X 10.8, switching to a nonfunctional AirPlay device may appear to succeed but immediately switches back to another device; you need to confirm the change.

#!/bin/sh

notify() {
	/bin/echo -n "Input: $(/usr/local/bin/soundsource -i)" |
		/usr/local/bin/growlnotify \
		    -I /System/Library/PreferencePanes/Sound.prefPane \
		    -d net.sabi.soundsource $1
}

/usr/local/bin/soundsource -o Furrball || /usr/bin/true
if [[ `/usr/local/bin/soundsource -o` = Furrball ]]; then
	notify Furrball
else
	notify "Power cycling Furrball..."
	/usr/bin/osascript -e 'tell app "XTension" to turn off "Furrball"'
	/bin/sleep 1
	/usr/bin/osascript -e 'tell app "XTension" to turn on "Furrball"'
	count=0
	while true; do
		notify "Waiting for Furrball ($count)..."
		if /sbin/ping -qot 1 furrball.local; then
			/usr/local/bin/soundsource -o Furrball
			notify Furrball
			exit 0
		fi
		count=$((count+1))
	done
fi
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