Geeks don’t conform to the status quo—and neither do their Macs. But even the best of us can get stuck in a word-processing and Web-browsing rut. If your New Year’s resolutions included breaking out of the ordinary, we’re here to help. Read on as three of Macworld ’s veteran geeks share sneaky secrets for using a Mac in unconventional ways.
Listen to e-mail on your iPod
Just look at you—dressed in black from head to toe, spinning and flailing in front of a neon background! But honestly, is that really why you bought an iPod? To listen to music ? Instead, how about getting your iPod to read your e-mail to you during your morning commute? With Mail and Automator (both in /Applications), it’s a mere trifle.
1. Create a new Automator workflow and type
2. Drag the Find Mail Items action from the Action pane into your workflow. This action collects messages that match the terms you specify. For instance, to find all unread e-mails from your soulless overlord (uh, boss), select Messages from the Find pop-up menu, and then choose Sender Contains your boss’s e-mail address. Click on the plus-sign (+) button and set the second search term to Read Status Is False.
3. Drag the Combine Mail Messages action into your workflow. This action mashes all e-mails found in the previous step into one blob of text.
4. Using Automator’s Search box, locate the Text To Audio File action, which converts written words to an audio file of spoken text. Drag it beneath the last action in your workflow. From the System Voice pop-up menu, choose one of Tiger’s built-in synthetic voices. Enter a name for the audio file, as well as where you want to save it.
5. Now you want your audio file of spoken e-mails to land on your iPod. Create a playlist in iTunes (File: New Playlist) and give it a name (for instance, Mail Call!). Return to Automator, locate the Add Files To Playlist action for iTunes, and add it to the end of the workflow. Select the name of your new e-mail playlist from the Existing Playlist pop-up menu. (Automator does have an Add Songs To iPod action, but your mail will be easier to find if you use my technique instead.)
There you go—it’s done and dusted. Click on the Run button and behold the majesty of Automator. (But get comfy: if you’re buried in communiqués, it could take a while.) The audio file should appear in the iTunes playlist you created, ready to be transported to your iPod during your next sync.
There are a number of ways to trick out this workflow further. For instance, by saving it as a plug-in (File: Save As Plug-in) and selecting iCal Alarm, you can make your workflow show up in your calendar. Using the details pane in iCal, set the time you want the workflow to run—say, every morning before you leave the house—as well as how often you want it to repeat. Add an Update iPod action to the very end of your workflow, and your audio e-mail file will be ready to go when you are.— Andy Ihnatko
Put your folders to work
Folder actions are a useful way to weasel out of repetitive tasks. For instance, make a folder action that can automatically convert and rename files whenever you drag them to a certain folder or an action that appends project-based Spotlight comments. With Tiger’s user-friendly Automator, you can easily turn any workflow into a folder action. Here’s how:
1. In Automator, create the workflow you want to use as a folder action. Once you’re finished, go to File: Save As Plug-in and give your workflow a name.
2. In the same dialog box, choose Folder Actions from the Plug-in For pop-up menu. A pop-up menu called Attached To Folder will appear. From that menu, select the folder you want to attach the action to. If the folder isn’t listed, select Other to locate it.
3. If you see an Enable Folder Actions option, select it. If you don’t, no worries—this means that folder actions have already been enabled. Click on Save. From now on, OS X will trigger your action whenever you add items to that folder.
But cooler still is what’s going on behind the scenes. When you save a workflow as a folder action plug-in, Automator actually creates two items. First, it saves the workflow as an application (rather than a workflow) and places it in your user folder /Library/ Workflows/Applications/Folder Actions. At the same time, it creates an AppleScript that it stashes in your user folder /Library/Scripts/Folder Actions. When prompted, the system triggers the AppleScript as a folder action, and the script in turn launches the Automator workflow it’s tied to.
Once you’ve saved the workflow as a plug-in, attaching it to another folder is a cinch. Control-click on any folder and select Configure Folder Actions from the contextual menu. In the Folder Actions Setup window, click on the plus-sign button to add the folder you want to attach the action to; then choose from the list of available scripts.— Ted Landau
Create a spycam
Curious to see who’s using your computer when you’re away from your desk? Set up a spycam! All you need is a Web cam; Econ Technologies’ $30 ImageCaster for broadcasting footage to a Web site; and Humongous Elephants and Tigers’ free Dockless, which helps keep your snooping on the down low.
Set Up the Camera You can use your Mac’s built-in camera, Apple’s $149 external iSight ( ), or any other compatible Web cam—even a camcorder plugged into your Mac’s FireWire port. (A light on the iSight comes on when recording, so if you need to be covert, this camera may not be the best choice.) If you’re using a camcorder, make sure it’s turned on. If you’re using an adjustable Web cam, point it at the space you’d like to monitor.
Stream Footage ImageCaster takes images captured by your camera and broadcasts them to a Web site that you can access from any browser. Here’s how to use a .Mac account to set it up.
1. Open your .Mac preference pane, click on the iDisk tab, and turn iDisk Syncing off. This ensures that pictures are updated on the Web site.
2. Mount your iDisk by clicking in the Finder and selecting Go: iDisk: My iDisk. Inside your iDisk’s Sites folder, create a new folder and name it Spycam.
3. Launch ImageCaster and click on the Destination tab. From the Deliver To pop-up menu, choose Local File and drag the Spycam folder you created into the Path field.
4. Go to ImageCaster’s Source tab. Select Video Digitizer from the Import From pop-up menu. From the Buffer pop-up menu, select NTSC Half Size.
5. Click on the Web Page tab and enable the Generate Web Page option. This pane also allows you to configure the look of the Web page that will be hosting your spycam images. Choose a template (for instance, wood or chalkboard) and edit the various bits of text, such as the headlines and caption. To make text changes, double-click on the element you want to edit (in the slide-out drawer under Page Options) and enter your new text.
6. Visit the Schedule tab to choose when (days and times) the spycam will operate, as well as how frequently the image will refresh. Once per minute should be adequate.
At the bottom of the ImageCaster window, enable the Online option. Finally, click on the Deliver Now button in the toolbar to start uploading. If you’re using the standard template, the URL for your Web cam should look like this:
http://homepage.mac.com/ your member name /SpyCam/campage.html.
Hide the Evidence Ah, but suppose the person sitting at your Mac notices ImageCaster running and shuts it down? Enter Dockless, a utility that keeps running applications from appearing in the Dock, in the Application Switcher, and in the Force Quit menu. (They still appear in the Activity Monitor.)
Quit ImageCaster and launch Dockless. In the Applications window, deselect ImageCaster, and then click on Relaunch. ImageCaster reappears, without its menus at the top of the screen. Don’t worry—it’s one of the side effects of Dockless. Luckily, all important commands are still available from the application’s main window. Finally, press Command-H to make the ImageCaster window vanish.— Christopher Breen
[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of Secrets of the iPod and iTunes, fifth edition (Peachpit Press, 2006). Longtime Macworld contributor Andy Ihnatko is the technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of iPod Fully Loaded (Wiley, 2006). Senior Contributor Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixIt.]Mail Reader: This simple Automator workflow turns a group of e-mail messages into a spoken audio file.Somebody’s Watching: Using Image-Caster, you can broadcast Web-cam images to a site that you can view from anywhere.