Mac OS X Hints - Dec. 2007

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Liven up Numbers spreadsheets

If you want to make your spreadsheets more appealing, you can easily include images in Numbers ’08 (   ), part of Apple’s $79 iWork ’08 suite. Use the Media icon on the toolbar, select the Insert: Choose menu item, or just drag and drop an image onto your spreadsheet. But once you get an image in, you might find making it do what you want tricky.

First off, Numbers adds images to the top layer of your worksheet by default, which means they’ll cover up your data. Select Arrange: Send To Back to move the picture behind the table cells. That’s fine if you want your data to have a white background that blots out the image (as it will by default in many templates), but what if you want to see the image behind all the cells?

You might think that you need to change the cells’ fill option, but if you select a cell and open the Graphic tab of the Inspector (View: Show Inspector), you’ll see that the fill is set to None. The secret is that in Numbers, the grid also has a fill, and by default that fill is white. To remove it, first click on the grid once to activate it. When you can see the row and column headers, click in the upper left corner. (You’ll see an empty gray square above the number 1 and to the left of the letter A. ) The row and column headers will vanish, leaving the grid with a selection box around it. Now open the Inspector, click on the Graphic tab, and set Fill to None. The cells in the table body will then most likely reveal the background image—unless the template you’re using has some cells set to have a white fill. If you don’t want those cells to be white either, select the row and use the Graphic Inspector to set Fill to None.

Now you’re ready to truly customize your spreadsheet. You can vary which cells show what parts of the image and with how much translucency by setting some cells to have a fill and then changing the fill’s opacity. After you select Color Fill on the Graphic tab, click on the color sample square that appears. The Colors palette will open; tweak the Opacity slider here to reveal more or less of the image behind it (see “Image-Rich Spreadsheets”).

Try Dictionary widget tricks

Mac OS X 10.4’s Dictionary widget provides a convenient way to look up the occasional word in the dictionary or thesaurus. Using it is as straightforward as can be—press F12 to bring up Dashboard, open the widget if it’s not currently showing, and then type your word into the search box in the widget’s upper right corner. But this little program does have a few hidden nuances.

First, as is the case with text in many OS X applications, you can get the search box to show you possible completions based on the characters you’ve typed so far. How? Just press and hold control, option, or 1, and then press the escape key, and you’ll see a drop-down list of completions. Scroll down to the word you’d like to use and press return, and its definition will appear.

Once you have a definition visible, Dictionary has one more trick up its sleeve. Type

, for instance, and you’ll see its definition. Now click on the half-circle with the capital R on it, sticking out on the widget’s left edge. A list of other known words and phrases that start with rain appears. Click on one of those words to jump to its definition, or click on the capital letter again (before clicking on another word), and you’ll switch back to the standard definition of rain.

Toggle the widget from Dictionary mode to Thesaurus mode, and the same trick works; here it will show you a list of other words in the thesaurus that are similar in meaning to the chosen word—in this case, rain. Toggle the capital letter again, and you’re back to the thesaurus entries for rain.

See everything in iTunes

With the advent of Apple’s free iTunes 7 (   ), the company split the monolithic library entry into several distinct libraries: Music, Movies, TV Shows, Podcasts, and Radio. While this makes sense, at times I’d like to browse my entire collection of stuff. Prior to iTunes 7.1, you could do this with a simple three-line AppleScript. That no longer works in newer versions of iTunes. There is, however, another solution: use a smart playlist.

Create a smart playlist (File: New Smart Playlist) with only one rule: Size Is Greater Than 0MB. Make sure Live Updating is selected so that the smart playlist will update as you add new content to iTunes. Name your smart playlist whatever you like (I called mine Kitchen Sink), but start the name by pressing option-space so the playlist will sort to the top of the Playlists section. If you prefer, you can even sort your merged library by type of content—just make sure the Kind column is visible in the main iTunes window by control-clicking on the column headers and choosing Kind from the pop-up menu. When you’re viewing your collection in this smart playlist, pressing the delete key will remove an item only from the playlist. Press option-delete to remove it from your computer.

View photo books on screen

Last holiday season, I used Apple’s iPhoto to create a printed book of images of my two daughters for both sets of their grandparents. The end results were stunning, but far from cheap. If you’re thinking of forgo-ing print and making an electronic photo book instead (by saving and distributing it as a PDF file), here are some tips for viewing it on screen.

To get the most book-like experience, set your PDF viewer to display the book two pages at a time. In Apple’s Preview, open the PDF, choose View: PDF Display: Facing Pages, and then enter slide-show mode (Command-shift-F or View: Slideshow). Click on the Fit To Screen button (second from the right in the controller at the bottom of the screen) to make the pages fill your monitor. If you’re using Adobe Reader instead, select View: Page Display: Two Up. Next select Adobe Reader: Preferences, click on Full Screen in the Categories column, and deselect the Fill Screen With One Page At A Time option. Click on OK. Now select View: Full Screen Mode (Command-L) and enjoy.

Automatically update podcasts

If you select iTunes: Preferences and click on the Podcasts tab, you can choose to update podcasts hourly, daily, weekly, or manually. But sometimes none of these options fits the bill—say you select Daily, but you shut down iTunes in the evening before the update has a chance to run. When you next connect your iPod, you may find that you don’t have any new podcasts.

You can, of course, fix this by clicking on Podcasts in iTunes’ Source list and then clicking on the Refresh button, but a one-line AppleScript will save you some work if you find yourself doing this often. First open Script Editor (/Applications/AppleScript/) and type this line (or copy and paste it ):

tell application "iTunes" to updateAllPodcasts

Select File: Save As and name your script Update Podcasts. In the Save As dialog box, navigate to your user folder/Library/iTunes/Scripts. (If you don’t see the Scripts folder, click on New Folder to create it.) Now switch to iTunes and you’ll see a new AppleScript icon between the Window and Help menus. Click on it and choose Update Podcasts. The Scripts folder is one of iTunes’ hidden gems. Any AppleScripts you store in it will appear in this menu (see some great recommendations ).

[ Senior Editor Rob Griffiths runs the Web site. ]

Image-Rich Spreadsheets: Make Numbers’ cell grids transparent, and you can create interesting effects by placing images behind the grids.
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