Recent Tunes Update

I’ve been working on separating and cleaning up the code I use to run the Recent Tunes area of my sidebar so that it may be made into an easily installable sidebar item for any weblog via a PHP include() statement, but have run into a slight snag. The Recent Tunes application doesn’t work in Tiger and has been sold to someone, so I have no “easy” way of getting the iTunes track data to my webserver with no foreseeable hope of it being updated. It looks like I’ll have to come up with my own solution involving AppleScript. However, AppleScript is just not a language I can work with (I can’t live without {‘s!). If anyone could suggest a simple AppleScript that would grab important data from the current iTunes track and make it available to some other scripting language (PHP would be nice), that would be fantastic. I’ll probably end up putting that AppleScript into a shell script using osascript, then formatting and uploading that data with PHP, all run via cron on my local machine. I’m open to other suggestions, though. The only thing I need is the iTunes track data in a computer-readable format uploaded onto a FTP server. The rest I can change the code to fit. When this does turn into a useable project, you’ll surely get due credit.

I’ve also got a name picked out which has no (yes, zero) results on Google right now, so it will be distinguishable from other projects out there. More on that when I have things working again. For now, I’ve disabled that section of my sidebar.

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Recent Tunes Update

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

Mac OS X 10.4 is officially in the wild now, and the veritable flood of new tips and tricks is well under way. Let me begin with another plug for TigerWiki.com, which has seen a number of great new additions in the last few days. Keep it up! MacOSXHints.com is now open for Tiger hints, and there are already some great tips posted, such as the ability to separate Dashboard widgets from the “Dashboard layer” and use them right on top of your desktop. Speaking of Dashboard widgets, Apple’s own widgets site is open now, and features some cool little utilities, and so does dashboardwidgets.com. Now, for something really impressive, check out Apple’s QuickTime HD gallery, featuring several videos and movie trailers (Kingdom of Heaven!) in ridiculously high quality H.264 video. I’m sure there’s plenty other great tidbits about 10.4 on the web that I missed, so feel free to add your finds to the comments.

So far, Tiger has been running smoothly and most of the applications I use daily work out of the box or already have a free “Tiger upgrade” available. A big thanks goes out to the Mac OS X developer community for continually supporting its users with each OS release. I really believe the Mac has some of the best software in the world, and it wouldn’t amount to anything without the effort of all the devoted developers out there.

If you have time to spare and are interested knowing more than you ever wanted to know about all the new technologies in Tiger, ArsTechnica has a fantastic article on all the changes in this revision of Mac OS X. It’s really incredible to see all the under-the-hood details that have been updated by Apple. Mac OS X has gone from a dog slow public beta of an operating system to a fast, stable, and powerful system in four years. I can’t wait to see what the next few years hold for the Mac, as Apple has laid rock solid groundwork for a truly next generation computing platform.

Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger

TigerWiki

Jon Maddox and I started a wiki to help document all the cool new features of Mac OS X 10.4. It already has some preliminary content, but there’s plenty more new items in Tiger other than the big-name features, and it’s all welcome. If you find a useful change made in Tiger or would like to read up on things that have been updated, head on over to TigerWiki and help out by adding new content. Anyone can register to make changes or add new items.

TigerWiki

Knox

A new application released today is an encrypted backup solution for Mac OS X called Knox. It maintains AES encrypted “vaults,” which can be opened and used as if it were a standard folder. After downloading the trial and using it for a while, I found that it works quite well and has that disctinct Mac application look and feel.

While I applaud the creators on creating a functional, great looking Mac application, I can’t really see myself buying it. The special sounding “vaults” are nothing more than encrypted disk images that are already built into Mac OS X 10.3 and later. You can create one yourself by clicking “New Image” in Disk Utility, found on every Mac in the /Applications/Utilities folder. Under the “Encryption” pop-up menu, choose “AES-128 (recommended)” and “Sparse Disk Image” under the “Format” menu. After naming it and clicking Create, you will have a new, empty disk image whose contents will be encrypted. A “Sparse Disk Image” is simply an image that expands as new content is added. When the disk image is ejected, the contents cannot be opened unless you know the password or can somehow break AES-128 encryption. The “.sparseimage” file is the same as a Knox Vault file, but you’ve created it and can use it for free.

The only real benefit that Knox offers is the ability to keep track of and automatically backup your vault files. However, if you have even minimal organizational skills, you can surely keep track of a single important file. Keep it in your Home folder, or your Documents folder, and open it as needed, copy sensitive files into it, then eject it. Knox can schedule the copying of your vaults to another drive, your iPod, iDisk, or a network drive — all of which can be done manually, or with a little work, automatically as well.

Knox seems like a great little application for those who want to be able to effortlessly create encrypted backups of information, but I think the $30 price tag is high, given that the functionality it provides is already built into the Mac OS X system.

Update: I’ve been using Knox for several days now, and I must say that it’s starting to grow on me the more I use it. While based on standard OS X features, it’s definitely quicker to make a new vault than it is to make a new sparseimage in Disk Utility. I haven’t used the iDisk backup features, as I don’t have a whole lot of available space on my iDisk, but the ability to backup to a network share is great.

Knox

Mac OS X USB LCD

I’m working on a small project which will allow you to connect a small LCD to your Mac via USB, and I’m curious if people have any suggestions as to what they would use it for — current iTunes track, unread mail, RSS headlines?

The chip on the left is a Cypress USB interface from Delcom Engineering, and the one on the right is a standard MAX232 chip, which converts signal levels to RS-232 from the Cypress chip. Using these two together, you can send RS-232 data from your Mac, and I’ve connected it to a serial LCD from Scott Edwards Electronics (the most expensive part of the project), and am able to send any data to the LCD, even control the backlight!

I intend to build up a full page about how I did it in the very near future, but I’m still working on the C code which does the work of talking to the USB I/O chip. Right now, though, I’m looking for suggestions of things to implement for the release. If you have a neat idea, post it in the comments. I’ll be working with a 4 line by 20 character LCD, if it helps.

Update: Also, if anyone has a preferred way of getting data to the LCD, post that as well. Would you prefer AppleScript, Python, something else? I’m sure AppleScript will be involved somewhere along the way to communicate with Mac OS X apps, but what about the “glue” between that and my command-line app? I’m partial to PHP, but it’s not used very often as a system-level scripting system.

Mac OS X USB LCD

jpegextractor

I recently found a cool little open source Java program called “jpegextractor” which looks for JPEG images inside of other files, regardless of their type. It can accomplish this because JPEG files have a short but distinct beginning and end marker. Jpegextractor runs through a given file looking for occurrences these two blocks, and if found, copies the data between them to new JPEG image files on your disk.

One purpose I’ve found for it is extracting the artwork from purchased iTunes songs via the command line, as the cover art is stored as JPEG data inside the MPEG-4 protected file (however, only the audio is encrypted, not the cover image). It is possible to copy the artwork out via iTunes song info window, which I found out later.

Using jpegextractor isn’t hard at all. With it downloaded, cd to the jpegextractor folder, and then do java jpegextractor /path/to/file.m4p, replacing /path/to/file.m4p with whatever file you want to juice for JPEG images. If anything is found, it will dump out an “output0.jpg”, or more, numbered sequentially.

$ cd ~/Desktop/jpegextractor/
$ java jpegextractor Ready to Rise.m4p
Ready to Rise.m4p
=>output0.jpg (519887 bytes)
Extracted 1 JPEG file(s) with 519887 bytes from 1 input file(s).

jpegextractor homepage

jpegextractor

Little Snitch

One of my favorite behind-the-scenes programs for Mac OS X is a network filter called Little Snitch. It allows you to limit any outbound network connection that your Mac makes, and permit or deny it based on the server address, port, or both. For example, if a new program tries to connect to the internet send data out to a server, Little Snitch pops up and asks you what you want to do. At that point, you can allow or deny the connection once, forever, or until the application quits.

It has recently been updated to work with Mac OS X 10.4, and the upgrade is free. It sells for $24.94, but I find it quite valuable, and it gives me peace of mind that no programs are sending out anything I don’t want them to.

Little Snitch