OSX sidebar orphans annoyance / binary XML whinge

I have circled around the Mac-Sun-Windows-Linux loop since the 1980s. Currently I am part of what Keith N calls the “invasion of the Mac brain snatchers”. Mac market share is slowly increasing amongst the general populace, but amongst astronomers its probably already the majority. If the gods that reside at One Infinite Loop have noticed this phenomenon, they maybe assume its because we appreciate and understand the power, flexibility, and beauty of OSX. Well Steve, it aint bad, but actually ITS THE UNIX. If Gnome and KDE keep improving, and Apple keep being commercial control freaks, it could be Ubuntu for me next time. (Unless there are Android laptops or something by then of course.) I just spotted  a worrying development on OSX – binary XML. Begin digression …

The OSX interface is pretty good, and the terminal interface is v.useful. (I use iTerm in preference to the standard Terminal – this is because it has tabs you can rename.) But there are some occasional annoyances. One that has hit me a few times is the issue of sidebar orphans.  You can drag aliases for frequently used folders and other items to a sidebar in the Finder, which is nice. Occasionally, as I re-organise my folders I end up with aliases for items that no longer exist, and I can’t even remove them, as when you click on the alias, you just get a message that says “can’t find this volume” or similar. I am a tad confused, as I have been trying to produce these orphans deliberately in the last few minutes and failing – moving and deleting folders seems to work ok. I just know it happens sometimes, and I have been getting a slowly longer list of them ! (I found a forum discussion here, but its a bit out of date.)

So I thought, this list has to be stored somewhere. I will find the file and edit it . Sure enough, there is a file called “com.apple.sidebar.plist” in Users/name/Library/Preferences. If I click on this file, it opens up in the Property List Editor. This has a mixture of the obvious and the gobbledygook, but its not hard to locate the item concerned and do “Delete Item”.

But its a tad mysterious. Finder says that this plist is an XML file, but it aint text; it seem to be a binary file, and the Property List Editor unpacks and formats it, as well as acting as a dedicated editor. If you try the Help menu, although it says “Property List Editor Help” it jumps straight to Xcode Help, way above my head. I isn’t a developer. I installed Xcode because I wanted Macports, which requires the X11 SDK, which comes bundled with Xcode.I just did what the nice folks at Macports told me too. I think the Property List Editor comes with Xcode, so in fact without this I would not have been able to edit this list at all.  Apparently you can change items on the command line with the “defaults” utility, or use the “plutil” utility for converting back to text – see this forum page.

This brought home to me that OSX is not just a GUI written in Unix. The OS itself, and the developer framework,  are also highly specialised constructs. Its maybe a lucky accident for us that the Unix layer is still visible and useable so that we can write shell scripts, install IRAF or whatever. This short wikipedia article explains the evolution of plist files. The original NeXTSTEP version was plain text. OSX 10.0 changed this to an XML format, defined by a public DTD; OSX 10.2 changed this to binary XML, which a normal user can’t inspect at all, and a geeky user can only inspect afer installing the Apple Developer Tools package (aka Xcode).

And there was me thinking that the point of XML was that it was an open plain text format, and that the Mac, being based on Unix, was transparent, modular, and flexible, in beautiful contrast to the incomprehensible gargantuan tangle that is the Windows Registry.  Well in relative terms, it still is.. but its a worrying trend.

For those of you who don’t want to install Xcode, there are some lightweight third party plist editors listed in the above wikipedia article, and the web page for this one also has a nice rant about binary XML.

Oh, and because I am a responsible parent, I should say “Before Using the Property List Editor, do a Back Up“, and could you all sign the disclaimer firm please ?

27 Responses to OSX sidebar orphans annoyance / binary XML whinge

  1. Robin says:

    Ubuntu Linux works well for many users, but it includes a lot of experimental software. Which is fine as long as you know it and are willing to be a guinea pig.

    For most newcomers to Linux I recommend Mepis Linux (http://mepis.org) because it is built on the rock-stable foundation of Debian’s Stable branch. And it has an absolutely awesome implementation of the fabulous KDE desktop. The current Beta version (still built on Debian Stable!) has a lot of the latest stuff including the latest KDE. I would definitely give Mepis a spin before settling for Ubuntu Linux.

  2. vlk says:

    Indeed. Judging by conference presentations, in the US, Macs became a majority among astronomers about four years ago. Nowadays if you see a Windows machine, odds are it is being toted around by a European.

    But say it again, and again, IT’S THE UNIX. Take away the unix, and that vaunted market share will vanish overnight.

  3. Ross Collins says:

    I took the opportunity to do a Mac laptop head count at a recent Java workshop for developers for ESA’s Gaia mission where everyone had a laptop with them. The result: Only four out of the forty attendees had Mac laptops. Oddly Windows still commanded a strong majority amongst European astronomy software developers – there were only a couple running Linux.

    I left Linux for my Mac because of a host of laptop hardware incompatibility problems that were never resolved during my 8 years of using a laptop with various Linux distributions.

  4. What?! No mention of VMS?!?!

    • andyxl says:

      Ah yes … VMS. As good as Unix but more like speaking English. About the time we all had to swap from VMS to Unix, there was a story going the rounds about a postdoc who had an urgent piece of work to finish just as all the machines in the Department went down – except for the ancient VAX. He found an old timer who still knew how the VAX worked, and begged him for a quick tutorial. “But just the basics”, he said, “I haven’t got much time!!”. “OK” says the old guy.

      “Right – well, err.. suppose I want to copy a file ?”

      “You say copy filename1 filename2”

      “How do I print something ?”

      “You say print filename”

      “OK OK… what if I want to list the contents of a directory ?”

      “You say directory directoryname.”

      … repeat several times in similar manner …

      “Well suppose I want to delete something ?”

      “You say delete filename”

      “Well OK .. but how am I supposed to remember all that!!!!”

      • VMS has largely disappeared from academia, due to a combination of bad marketing on the part of its owner(s) and a dislike of proprietary software by the self-appointed gods^H^H^H^H^H unix sysadmins. Ironically, some of these are now helping people move to proprietary OSs like Windows and MacOS.

        Outside of academia, much of the world still runs on VMS. I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but for many, many years VMS machines ran the chip production at Intel.

      • There used to be Starlink, and there used to be Starlink Bulletins. They are available here. In particular, check out this one and read the excellent Captain Starlink cartoon on page 7.

        I came to Jodrell Bank shortly after they had moved from VMS to unix for general computing (but VMS was still doing important stuff like telescope control), so I bought my own VMS computer (I now have about 20 ALPHAs and 20 VAXes at home—most I got for free, and bought a few for a token fee; the one at Jodrell Bank (at the time the fastest workstation in the world) was the only one I bought new). About the same time, I found this old Captain Starlink cartoon when cleaning out my new office at Jodrell Bank. I promptly framed it and still have it today.

  5. John Peacock says:

    It’s NOT THE UNIX: for me, anyway, IT’S THE HARDWARE. The new unibody macbook is so gorgeous that it has had a terrible effect on my productivity: I just want to stare at it rather than use it. I don’t care what OS it runs.

    Actually, the best software advantage of OSX is VMware Fusion, which lets you run MS windows apps seamlessly without any dual boot nonsense. And why would anyone want to? To save you having to shell out >1000 quid for a new Mathematica licence, that’s why, to say nothing of powerpoint that actually works.

    Nothing is perfect, of course. Why can’t they do away with the stupid Apple key (you have shift fn alt cntrl and apple as ways of modifying keys, which is a ridiculous overabundance) and give us pageup/down instead? And don’t get me started on the sodding dongles: don’t Apple realise that most of us would happily pay >100 quid to have a custom model with a VGA port instead?

  6. ian smail says:

    thanks – i’ve had two copies of the “Desktop” link on my finder sidebar since about ~2006 and it bugged the hell out of me.

    so i’ve now managed to delete the “disabled” one.

    this comes from the one thing which OS-X falls down on – the help facility is useless for anything detailed (worse than MS). you can find information on the web, but for the most part it isn’t apple who is providing it.

    the take-off i saw with mac kit was when they released 10.3, then a lot of people started buying the laptops (at least in the US/UK). given the developer community, i’d be surprised if they totally lost the link to UNIX… but if they do then i’ll have to go back to a clunky linux-overlayed MS laptop where none of the hardware-specific features work.

  7. dave says:

    Yep – It’s the Unix. To have IRAF, powerpoint (or these days Keynote) and word all open at the same time on the same machine without virtual machine nonsense is great.

    The thing that really sold me on OSX Macs first of all was the ability to walk into a shop on Tottenham Court Road, open a terminal window on one of the demo Macs and start EMACS. Bliss!

  8. andyxl says:

    Running EMACS made you happy ? You and JAP should have sado-masochistic evenings together.

  9. Andy, please check my latest comment above; it appears that one of the links doesn’t work. Perhaps an obvious typo on my part, but the comments can’t be edited by the author. 😦

  10. andyxl says:

    Phillip – done. And a splendid cartoon it is too.

  11. Martin E. says:

    The Minor Planet Center runs on VMS, which makes them safe from hackers trying to steer an asteroid at the Earth. You may sleep easily now.

  12. Martin E. says:

    ANDY! How come you had time to fiddle with sidebars when our HST proposal was at stake!! I never have the time for this stuff.

  13. andyxl says:

    Posted a full five days before the HST deadline M… and sometimes you just have to have some fun. Ohhhh wot a geek am I.

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